On Editing Oliver Sacks: He Never Stopped Loving Publishing

From a post on lithub.com by Bill Hayes headlined “On Editing Oliver Sacks After He Was Gone”:

As much as Oliver Sacks loved writing (and I do mean the very act itself—filling his fountain pen; starting a fresh yellow pad; whispering words aloud to himself as they came to) he also loved getting published.

The “getting” part was a big part of it: Even after publishing 13 books and hundreds of essays and articles in his lifetime, Oliver still considered it a privilege to “get” his work in print….

His readers might be surprised to learn how little he cared about where a piece of writing first appeared. It did not have to be in the most prominent places—The New York Times, The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books…though he certainly felt fortunate to have his work appear frequently in their pages. Oliver was just as happy to see a piece he’d written in literary journals such as The Threepenny Review; highly specialized medical journals such as The Archives of Neurology; or commercial magazines with relatively small circulation such as Astrobiology Magazine. Each had its own distinctive audience and, hence, might be enjoyed even more deeply.

Now, 33 of these and other uncollected pieces are in a book—the final volume of the essays of Oliver Sacks, Everything In Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales. Everything In Its Place, like the posthumously published Gratitude (2015) and The River of Consciousness (2017), was co-edited by Kate Edgar, Oliver’s personal editor and assistant of 30 years; Dan Frank, his longtime editor at Knopf; and me, his partner in his last six years. The three of us spent about 18 months reading and rereading well over a hundred pieces and meeting to discuss them frequently.

Unlike the two earlier posthumous books, both of which Oliver had discussed with us before he died, this time around we did not have the benefit of his thoughts to guide us. While he knew there would be one more collection of his work after The River of Consciousness, he ran out of time to organize it before his death….

Oliver had a deep respect for editors, whose role is to make judgments, to offer critical comments, to say if something doesn’t work—whether a point, a passage, or an entire piece—or if it unequivocally does….

For his magazine and newspaper pieces, there were a few “house style” editing conventions that drove him nuts. American publications would always change his very British use of the word “which” to “that.” He never got used to that. Moreover, the NYRB insisted on turning his footnotes into endnotes, which did not sit well with Oliver, an inveterate footnote writer. But that was better than The New Yorker, which forbade foot- and endnotes completely, insisting they either be dropped or incorporated into the main text….

Writing gave Oliver such joy it was infectious to those around him. Each stage in the process brought its own rewards: getting the first uncorrected proofs, with their clean white pages of “beautifully” typeset text (which he’d then promptly mark up with an array of multicolored felt pens); then bound galleys—sent out to critics several months before pub date; and of course, the first copies of the finished book itself. As with birthdays, he firmly believed publishing a book called for a celebration—preferably with smoked salmon, fresh herring, Champagne, and plenty of friends….

Bill Hayes is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the author of How We Live Now; Insomniac City: New York, Oliver Sacks, and Me; The Anatomist; Five Quarts; and Sleep Demons. His portraits of his partner, the late Oliver Sacks, appear in the volume of Dr. Sacks’s suite of essays, Gratitude. Hayes serves as a co-editor of Dr. Sacks’ posthumously published work, including the final volume of his essays, Everything In Its Place. Sweat A History of Exercise is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021.

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