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The Island of the Colorblind Hardcover – January 7, 1997

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Editorial Reviews Review

In his books An Anthropologist on Mars and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks details the lives of patients isolated by neurological disorders, shedding light on our common humanity and the ways in which we perceive the world around us. Now he looks at the effects of physical isolation in The Island of the Colorblind. On this journey, he carried with him the intellectual curiousity, kind understanding, and unique vision he has so consistently demonstrated.

Drawn to the Micronesian island of Pingelap by reports of a community of people born totally colorblind, Dr. Sacks set up a clinic in a one-room dispensary. There he listened to patients describe their colorless world in terms rich with pattern and tone, luminance and shadow. Then, in Guam, he investigated a puzzling neurodegenerative paralysis, making housecalls amid crowing cockerels, cycad jungles, and the remains of a colonial culture. The experience affords Sacks an opportunity to elaborate on such personal passions as botany and history and to explore the meaning of islands, the dissemination of species, the birth of disease, and the nature of deep geologic time.

From Publishers Weekly

Neurologist Sacks, famed for his investigations of unusual medical conditions (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, etc.), went to Micronesia in 1993 to study firsthand two rare disorders: achromatopsia, or total congenital color blindness, which afflicts more than 5% of the population on the islands of Pingelap and Pohnpei; and lytico-bodig, a fatal, progressive neurodegenerative disease common in Guam, causing paralysis, dementia and catatonia. His total immersion in island life makes this luminous, beautifully written report a wondrous voyage of discovery. Most of those born color-blind never learn to read because they can't see the teacher's writing on the board; they can't work outdoors in bright light, and are unable to see fine detail; yet many achromatopes, Sacks found, develop acute compensatory memory skills and curiosity and thus live in a world of heightened reality. On Guam he visited families tragically scarred by lytico-bodig, a disease blamed by some scientists on the natives' ingestion of cycad trees' toxic seeds; other researchers suspect that the cause can be traced to a virus, diet as a whole or genetics. With aplomb, Sacks wears many hats?cultural anthropologist, naturalist, explorer, ethnographer, neuroscientist?as he delves into the islands' volcanic origins, their archeological wonders (e.g., Pohnpei's megalithic ruins, remnants of a monumental civilization), their unique flora and fauna (nocturnal tree-climbing snakes, iridescent ferns, dwarf forests), their bloody colonial history under Spanish and German rule, their still active indigenous myths. As a travel writer, Sacks ranks with Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin. As an investigator of the mind's mysteries, he is in a class by himself. Illustrated with drawings, maps. 150,000 first printing; Literary Guild selection; Random House audio.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 298 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (January 7, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679451145
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679451143
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #588,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. He is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and the author of many books, including Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Musicophilia. The New York Times has referred to him as "the poet laureate of medicine."

His work has inspired many adaptations, including the Oscar-nominated film of Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, a play by Harold Pinter, and several works by Peter Brook.

His autobiography, On the Move, will be published April 28, 2015.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

52 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Laura Hamilton on March 7, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I adore the quirkiness of Oliver Sacks. Such a multifaceted individual...neurologist, botanist, world-traveller, musically talented, and a bona-fide eccentric of the best kind. I have read nearly all of his books and this is one of the best.
My biggest fault with Sacks is that he can drone on about minutiae in the middle of a scintillating story and lose the interest of his readers. I love a good detailed medical story, and I don't have ADD or anything, but I skipped through many pages of "An Anthropologist on Mars", in spite of the great stories in that book.
In *this* book he keeps the tale lively and doesn't lapse into stupefying detail. It's full of juicy tidbits from a variety of areas: the history and anthropology of the peoples of the Pacific islands, personal anecdotes of the people he meets, a delightful travelogue, descriptions of beautiful ferns and cycad forests, adventure, mystery...
Main story #1: The genetically color-blind people of a small Pacific island. How did they get to be that way? What is it like to live on a small primitive island in a village of color-blind people?
Main story #2: What caused the majority of the population of Guam in the early part of this century to fall ill with a mysterious Parkinsonian-like disease that in some cases wiped out entire families? Oh, and here's the rub...this disease has now almost disappeared. Could it be the cycads? Or not?
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Earl Dennis on August 3, 2002
Format: Paperback
I had not read Sacks before and was laid up in the Peninsula hospital in Burlingame. This book was lingering on the shelf at home and I had my wife bring it to me. Soon the beige walls and IV tubes dissapeared and I was fighting the humidity of the tropical south pacific. This book reads like a travelogue, a report on achromatopsia (congenital colorblindness), the lytico-bodig (an alzheimers/parkinsons like condition), and the fern-like batonical oddity of cycad trees, among other things. The description of the ruins of Nan Madol was awesome. Where one reviewer found this literary style to be 'rambling,' I found it to be deliciously lazy and ambling. Sacks employs the device of digression with a pace that sort of stones you. Maybe this motif was influenced by the kava Sacks took on Pohnpei.
In any event, the book opens by delving into the congenital malady of acute colorblindness known as achromatopsia. Sacks learns of a little micronesian island with a large population of sufferers and follows his nose there with a couple of buddies, one of who is himself achromatopic. Soon we are on a small plane island hoping our way to the tiny atoll called Pingelap. You can virtually feel the tropical breeze reaching up your shorts. The description of achromatopsia is excellent. One almost imagines oneself as colorblind, seeing the world in a new perspective. Indeed, the light sensitive achromatopics here are often employed as night fishermen due to the advantage of their sensitive night vision, to catch flying fish in the phosphorescent waters of the warm Pacific. Sacks' attitude toward pathology is most admirable. He truly sees the afflicted as no more or less than whole people with differences, not partial or disfunctional people that are not normal.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By John IV on July 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
Having thoroughly enjoyed `The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat' I opted to make this my second Dr. Sacks outing. Once again the good doctor provides compelling, humane, interesting stories about odd physiological conditions and the cultures that foster and contend with them. In multiple episodes that have him traveling to small volcanic islands in Micronesia, the entertaining neurologist studies a group of people who have been born without the ability to see color. Accompanying him is a Nordic specialist in this genetic trait, and one who also happens to share the same condition. As the troupe moves about the islands, they meet and talk with the achromatopes; the natives and Knut evince a feeling of camaraderie. Dr. Sacks plumbs their depths to hear them describe their world in terms of textures and monochrome shades, completely barren of color. Along the way, he experiences a taste of their `night' lives, the skills they have developed to compensate for their lack of color sight. The next topic in the island hopping takes them to Guam where Sacks sees the patients of an associate who suffer from lytico-bodig, a degenerative condition which causes paralysis [not unlike Dr. Sacks' own neurological patients] and eventual dissolution. Having struck only a certain age bracket on the islands, the mysterious disease has confounded science for almost four decades and has almost killed off its victims. Finally, he treks to Rota to walk among the ancient Cycad plants that have captured his imagination since childhood. This novel appealed to the adventurer's spirit while I was reading it, listening to Dr. Sacks describes the beauty of the island culture and the supremely languid pace of life. Dr.Read more ›
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Christopher Coleman on October 2, 2001
Format: Paperback
This book is a hybrid; part Pacific island travelogue and part neurological exploration. Those of us who know Dr. Sacks's other works will recognize the latter as familiar territory while the former will be a new and somewhat unexpected area of reportage for him. And while colorblindness might not be as exotic as some of Sacks's previous neurological mysteries, the good doctor is able to make it equally fascinating, even introducing us to the concept of colorblind art--patterns created using brightness rather than chroma so that they can be readily seen by the colorblind, but incidentally are not readily discernable by others. And even more fascinating, and certainly much more horrifying, is the polymorphous disease lytico-bodig found on Guam. Sacks is at his best describing this illness, its symptoms, treatment, and the fruitless search for its root cause. The reader is gripped by the story of a single disease that manifests itself very differently in different patients. The "lytico" form is a progressive and eventually fatal paralysis. The "bodig" form a loss of muscular control similar to Parkinson's, with related dementia. The disease's victims are compassionately portrayed and their plight made real though Sacks' vivid writing.
But the very nature of the book may cause the reader problems. How can the travelogue parts compete with such a compelling medical story? Sacks concludes his work (with the exception of almost 100 pages of footnotes, journal citations, and bibliography!) with a brief account of his visit to Rota, (one of two of the titular Cycad Islands [Guam being the other]--although why Sacks didn't use the plural is a mystery), and here the interest is purely botanical.
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