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Oliver Sacks on Death, Destiny, and the Redemptive Radiance of a Life Fully Lived

“It is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

Oliver Sacks on Death, Destiny, and the Redemptive Radiance of a Life Fully Lived

“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Montaigne observed in his sixteenth-century meditation on death and the art of living. “The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it,” the late surgeon and bioethicist Sherwin Nuland wrote half a millennium later in his foundational treatise on mortality.

I am yet to encounter a human being who embodied and enacted these difficult truths more wholeheartedly than Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015).

He confronted death directly, with courageous curiosity and radiant lucidity, in one of his New York Times essays posthumously collected in the small, enormously life-affirming book Gratitude (public library) — that great parting gift which gave us Dr. Sacks’s warm wisdom on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, edited by his partner, the writer and photographer Bill Hayes, and his friend and assistant of thirty years, Kate Edgar.

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes
Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

After learning of his terminal diagnosis, the irreplaceable Dr. Sacks peers into the depths of existence from the bittersweet platform of a long and, suddenly, immediately finite life:

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

As he faces the end of his own path — an end he had escaped narrowly decades earlier, when he saved his own life with literature and song — he writes:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Complement the thoroughly transcendent Gratitude with Dr. Sacks on what his beloved aunt taught him about dying with dignity and courage, his enchanting recollection of his largehearted life, and this remembrance of him written the day of his death, then revisit John Updike on writing and death and this wonderful Danish children’s book about making sense of mortality.


Eudora Welty on Friendship as an Evolutionary Mechanism for Language

“When we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth processing, for the rest of time.”

Eudora Welty on Friendship as an Evolutionary Mechanism for Language

“I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary as he turned forty and found himself contemplating the most succulent fruits of existence. But where exactly does the sweetness of friendship reside? How is it synthesized on the tongue of being?

In my recent effort to counter the commodification of the word “friend” and reclaim the meaning of friendship through a taxonomy of platonic relationships, I was led to something rather beautiful and rather forgotten that Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) wrote on the subject in The Norton Book of Friendship (public library) — a 1991 treasure trove of literature’s greatest letters, poems, stories, essays, and other wisdom on friendship, which Welty edited together with her dear friend Ronald A. Sharp.


In her introduction to the anthology, Welty considers one of the central perplexities of friendship — the way in which it weaves itself in and out of what we call love, a word with very particular cultural baggage, and the way in which we, in our effort to disentangle this entwinement into neater and more comprehensible categories, draw a somewhat arbitrary line between the two. She writes:

Friendship and love … know each other and avail themselves of each other. The solidest friendship is that of friends who love one another.

To this I would add that in the fullest and most rewarding of friendships, the two friends are always a little bit in love with one another. We need not classify the type of love as erotic, romantic, creative, intellectual, spiritual, or some other kind, only to know that a great friendship cycles, at one point or another, through each type.

Welty examines the singular magnetism of friendship in our lives and in our art:

“Friendship” is inherently a magnet. As with its own drawing power, it locates and draws to the surface, spreads before our eyes poems, stories, essays, letters, in the widest variety.


Certainly friendship has proved a magnet to literature, an everlasting magnet. History, poetry, drama, letters have been drawn to the subject of friendship, not simply to celebrate it but to discover, perceive, learn from it the nature of ourselves, of humankind, the relationships we share in our world.

Friendship has inherited its literary treasury; it lies in the language… And in that treasury’s further stories of pure gold are the works of the imagination, some old as time, some coined only yesterday.

Welty’s most salient point has to do with precisely this linguistic dimension of friendship — it might be the basic necessities of friendship, she suggests, that sparked in us the evolutionary need for language. It’s a notion both wonderfully poetic and rather plausible — we know that music and language helped us evolve, and what is friendship if not learning the song of another’s heart and singing it back to them?

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

Welty writes:

Did friendship between human beings come about in the first place along with — or through — the inspiration of language? It can be safe to say that when we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth processing, for the rest of time. Might it possibly have been the other way round — that the promptings of friendship guided us into learning to express ourselves, teaching ourselves, between us, a language to keep it by? Friendship might have been the first, as well as the best, teacher of communication. Which came first, friendship or the spoken word? They could rise from the same prompting: to draw together, not to pull away, not to threaten any longer.

Friendship lives, as do we ourselves, in an ephemeral world. How much its life depends on the written word. The English language itself is friendship’s greatest treasure…. Do we not owe friendship, as we owe Shakespeare, to language?

The Norton Book of Friendship is itself a great treasury, containing such gems as Emily Dickinson’s letter to her best friend, foundational meditations on friendship by Aristotle, Cicero, and Montaigne, John Donne’s touching ode to a friend, and Aesop’s classic fables of friendship. Complement it with C.S. Lewis on the purpose of friendship, Emerson on its two pillars, Andrew Sullivan on why friendship can be a greater gift than romantic love, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of “soul-friend,” then revisit Welty on the poetics of space, her impossibly charming job application to the New Yorker, and this rare recording of her reading her quietly heartbreaking masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.”


Happy Birthday, Thom Gunn: The Beloved Writer’s Reading List of 10 Essential Books to Enchant Teenagers with Poetry

“Poetry is of many sorts and is all around us… a rhymed political slogan is poetry of a kind, for example, and the lyrics of a song by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan may be poetry of a very high order.”

Happy Birthday, Thom Gunn: The Beloved Writer’s Reading List of 10 Essential Books to Enchant Teenagers with Poetry

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” wrote Adrienne Rich in her beautiful meditation on what poetry does. Few of her peers and contemporaries have embodied this poetic potentiality more vigorously than the prolific English-born poet and LGBT icon Thom Gunn (August 29, 1929–April 25, 2004) — one of those artists who never reached a mainstream mass but who elicited, and continue to elicit, a fervent, almost cultish adoration from their circle of loyal admirers. Oliver Sacks worshipped him, titled his own memoir after a line from one of Gunn’s poems, and learned about the nature of creativity from him.

On a recent visit to the unmined archives of the Academy of American Poets — which gave us such gold as that supreme defense of the artist’s right to challenge the status quo and the acutely timely story of the creative community’s courageous solidarity against racial violence in 1968 — I came upon a wonderful Gunn treasure.


In the fall of 1969, Elizabeth Kray — the Academy’s first executive director and one of the most spirited champions of poetry our civilization has ever had — reached out to Gunn, asking him what books he would insist his students read if he were a high school English teacher.

Three years earlier, Kray had piloted the Poets-in-the-Schools program, under which prominent poets visited New York City public schools in a quest to enchant young minds with poetry. She hoped the effort would engender “a permanent hook-up between the literary community and the persons involved in teaching the young: the teachers and the parents.” The program was an immediate success, and Kray now endeavored to use the book recommendations of the era’s greatest poets as the backbone of a reading list for a city-wide, and eventually nation-wide, reading program.

Letter from Elizabeth Kray to Thom Gunn, 1969
Letter from Elizabeth Kray to Thom Gunn, 1969

Forty-year-old Gunn complied gladly, if with delay. His largehearted response came handwritten, like most of his correspondence, and offered the ten most essential books to inspire a young mind for a lifetime of reading, alongside a beautiful meditation on the many-guised life of poetry beyond its traditional literary form.

Letter from Thom Gunn to Elizabeth Kray
Letter from Thom Gunn to Elizabeth Kray

Dear Betty Kray,

I am sorry to have been so long in answering your letter, in which you ask me for a list of books. I have not listed fiction, as my own reading of contemporary fiction is too random for me to be much help. And my list of poetry is a short one, as I think it will be more useful this way. It would be tempting to list all the twentieth century poets I myself like, but it strikes me that a poet like Wallace Stevens would be difficult to teach well to teenagers, so I have stuck with books about which I am certain.

I think the first aim of someone teaching poetry in a high school should be to continuously demonstrate that poetry is of many sorts and is all around us; that a rhymed political slogan is poetry of a kind, for example, and the lyrics of a song by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan may be poetry of a very high order; that inevitably most people have commerce with poetry in some part of their lives. The book that fist demonstrated this to me was

  1. The Poet’s Tongue (public library), edited by W.H. Auden and John Garrett.

    It is thirty years old, and I believe it is not published over here [in America], but it is in print in England, and is a book I think any high school teacher should get hold of. It is an anthology of all kinds of poetry, from all times, and successfully demonstrates the range and possibilities of poetry.

    The teacher should also get copies of:

  2. The Bob Dylan Song Book (public library), and
  3. The Beatles Song Book (public library) (to be published this month). “Sir Patrick Spens” is a poem not immediately available to most teenagers. But many of them already know and like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which is a ballad right in the same tradition.

    I think the following could be successfully taught:

  4. Wilfred Owen: Collected Poems (public library)
  5. D.H. Lawrence: Selected Poems (public library) (ed. Rexroth), (Compass Books)

    and even

  6. Ezra Pound: Selected Poems (public library) (New Directions)
  7. The Pound would be less easy to teach than the other two, but there are plenty of poems in it (“The Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” the Cathay poems) that could be much enjoyed by teenage students.

    Of really contemporary poets, I would include the following:

  8. Gary Snyder: The Back Country (public library) (New Directions) and any of his other books the teacher could get hold of.
  9. Allen Ginsberg: Howl and Other Poems (public library) (City Lights) and Planet News (public library)

    These are two poets who can most successfully speak to teenagers (and to a good many others of us). True, there are references to sex and drugs, and I don’t know what school policies may be about these. I think poems about sex and drugs are particularly good for teenagers to read, and if these two poets have to be bowdlerized out of the suggested program then I doubt if the program can be much good.

  10. Sylvia Plath: Ariel (public library)
  11. Ted Hughes: Lupercal (public library) or Selected Poems (public library)

I would hesitate to suggest Robert Bly or James Wright. They are fine poets but I think people under eighteen would have a good deal of difficulty with them.

As I say, sorry to have been so long. Don’t bother to answer this. I am sure you have plenty on your hands.


Thom Gunn

It might be self-evident to point out, and yet point out I must, that Gunn’s own Collected Poems (public library) belong on any such contemporary list.

Complement with Hemingway’s list of sixteen essential books every aspiring writer should read, Gabriel García Márquez on the twenty-four books that shaped him as a writer, and other notable reading lists by Oliver Sacks, Patti Smith, Carl Sagan, David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Werner Herzog, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Sam Harris, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Join me in supporting the Academy of American Poets with a donation to ensure the survival of their remarkable archive and their ongoing advocacy of poetry in public schools and public life.


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