60 Degrees North by Malachy Tallack

At the outset of this account of a circum-global journey, Malachy Tallack is at pains to establish the nature of the north: “There is,” he writes, “the tree line, above which the boreal forest gives way to tundra; the southern limit of permafrost; the Arctic Circle; the sixtieth parallel. Other measurements are also made. Temperature, precipitation, accessibility, population density: all are calculated, and a level of ‘nordicity’ can be assigned, according to a scale developed in the 1970s by the geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin.” Tallack opts to follow the 60th parallel of longitude, which passes through his Shetland home; Greenland; a whole swath of Canada and Alaska; a still greater swath of Siberia; the former Russian capital, St Petersburg; Finland, Sweden and Norway; before eventually depositing him back by the ancient broch – or fortified iron age dwelling – on the Shetland isle of Mousa, which is where he began.

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and writer, whose many books have done perhaps more than any other body of work to explain the mysteries of the brain to a general readership, is a strong supporter of the “narrativity” theory of the human subject. Suitably enough – given this is an autobiography – Sacks restates the notion here: “Each of us … constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ and is defined by this narrative.” Elsewhere he asserts: “I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.” Setting to one side the truth or otherwise of this contention (personally I think it’s only the social being that is narrated – to ourselves we are always “such stuff as dreams are made on”), for a man who views his life in dramatic terms, On the Move presents the reader with some quite startling narrative leaps. Perhaps the most extreme of these are two seemingly throwaway remarks Sacks makes concerning his sexual life: aged 21, and desperate to lose his virginity, he found himself in the tolerant atmosphere of Amsterdam – yet, trammelled by his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and the social repression of the era, he was unable to act, and instead sat in a bar all evening drinking “Dutch gin for Dutch courage”. He remembered nothing between staggering out of the bar and awaking the next morning in a strange bed, being served coffee by a man who explained: “He had seen me lying dead drunk in the gutter … had taken me home … and buggered me.” A demon even at that age when it came to details, Sacks asked “Was it nice?” to which his ravager replied “Yes … Very nice”, before rounding off the bizarre episode by commiserating: “He was sorry I was too out of it to enjoy it as well.”