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4.4 out of 5 stars
The Island of the Colorblind
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47 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2002
Format: PaperbackVerified 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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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 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. Sacks' writing is not only aesthetically entertaining, but his case studies continue to pique the interest of the intellect. However, one is never so bowled over by the beauty of the surroundings as to forget the real human cases being presented. It is indeed an odd combination, this beauty and tragedy, but one that works very well in this novel producing an enjoyable read.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
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. All of the afflicted in this book are examined respectfully and equitably as functional, whole, living organisms instead of sick and inferior. Geniune pathos appears where warranted but never condescendingly.
Next we're off to the volcanic island of Pohnpei and the megalithic ruins that remind us these islands "were once the seat of monumental civilizations." More achromatopics are encountered here, along with the acculturational clash between these Pacific island cultures, a collection of population bottlenecks colonized by Southeastern Asians, and Europeans. We visit the rainforest and encounter delicate, endemic, flourescent ferns, and forests of sakau, the local psychopharmacological substance of choice.
Then it's off to Guam to study the neurological disorder called the lytico-bodig of mysterious etiology. The island practice of consuming the toxic seeds of local cycad trees is supected as a cause of this condition, but it is unclear if it's caused by the eating of paste made from cycad tree seeds or is genetic in origin, as it seems to run in families. Sacks reaches into his experience with encephalitis induced coma patients and L-DOPA treatment in exploring the lytico-bodig. We also meet up with the ecological tsunami of the brown, tree-climbing snake which has consumed all the birds on Guam.
The last island is Guam's small neighbor Rota, where islanders take Sacks into the jungle in search of cycads, where we also find the leafless Psilotum nudum, whose ancestor was "the first plants to develope a vascular system, to free themselves from the need to live in water." Also visited are giant land crabs with claws powerful enough to open coconuts.
Maybe it's because I was trapped in a hospital, but I thoroughly enjoyed this travelogue, investigative science, and wistful reminiscence of the biological and cultural underpinnings that have brought us to this place in the present.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
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. That the book begins with a travelogue and having set the stage gradually moves into the medical mysteries seems natural; that those mysteries are left unresolved (as they must of course, this not being a work of fiction) to rhapsodize about primitive plants seems bizarre. Sacks's comments are well written for the most part--the cycads lead him to experience a sensation of "deep time", an appreciation for things ancient and " a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth." But unless we share his botanical enthusiasm, we are likely to find the juxtaposition of the account of lytico-bodig and cycad reproduction ("the pollen settles on the naked ovules and sends a tube down into them, within which the male germ cells, the spermatozooids, are produced...the spermatozooids, which are motile, powered by cilia, enter the egg cell and fuse with it totally...") a bizarre bit of post-modern prose.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 21, 2006
Format: Paperback
Oliver Sacks has created a lump of delight in his book, The Island of the Colorblind. After having a sincere interest in the topic of colorblind people, Sacks travels to Micronesia to visit with and better understand the victims of achromatopsia (a form of colorblindness) on the island. He takes with him a man by the name of Knut, who also has achromatopsia. They journey all over Micronesia, encountering numerous people living with the disease and thriving. They perform tests to assess the magnitude of the disease on the islands. Sunglasses and visors are passed out to the inhabitants to help them live their lives to the fullest. In the end, Sacks states that though the achromatopes of Micronesia are on a physical island, they also belong to the emotional island of achromatopes everywhere.

I found this book increasingly interesting with each passing page. The detail of his observations and the total immersion into the culture made it a joy. I agree with most other reviews in saying that the 50 page, illustrated notes at the end of the book make it much easier to understand the culture of the area and all that is happening around Sacks. His extensive citations tell me that he has truly researched all of his facts. I, like the above review, do not understand how people could not find this book humorous and delightful.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a challenging read. The words are large and there is much scientific talk. If you are interested enough in the topic to figure out the words, the book will be truly amazing. Colorblindness is such an underrated illness and it was wonderful to get an inside look.

-Micah
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 1999
Format: Paperback
Oliver Sacks takes all those with an interest in science on a journey to the Island of The Colorblind. A neurologist that has both an extensive medical knowledge and a special respect for his patients, uses specific examples, imagery, and particular diction to express that everyone is unique and has their own distinct qualities that make them special, no matter how they are disabled. In his journey through the islands, Dr. Sacks discovers that being colorblind can bring out other capabilities and adaptations to everyday life. The journey begins with Dr. Sacks on his way to the island of Pingelap, one of the many small islands located in the Pacific. To familiarize the reader to the subject of which he is studying, the achromatope condition, and show his fascination for the inevitable disability, Oliver Sacks tells of past findings of colorblind colonies and other isolated conditions. He provides several allusions to Darwin, Conan Doyle, and other explorers. All this is done while "island hopping" and provides an experience of making a voyage for the reader. Once on the island, many ecstatic islanders greet Dr. Sacks, and with them they bring their intricate culture. While Oliver Sacks experiences the island, he conducts studies and is fascinated by how well the achromatopes have adapted their culture and lifestyle to being colorblind. After offering medical assistance to the people of the island, he then moves on to Pohnpei, a larger island just West of Pingelap. It is here that Dr. Sacks discovers the rich heritage of the island. He also studies the lifestyles of the islanders and runs several tests, eventually distributing visors and special sunglasses, similar to his work on Pingelap. The last two sections of the book are not related to the first two and contribute only little to the overall purpose and message, mollifying the respect the reader had for the achromatopes. Dr. Sacks provides a vivid account of his journey and medical finding through specific examples. Whether it's a flashback or a fishing trip on Pingelap, examples are used to vitalize the island experience and create a respect for the islanders and their condition. In one of Oliver Sacks' experiences, he discovers that being an achromatope can be advantageous. By removing color, objects can be seen in greater detail, viewing every crack, curve, and texture. The appearance of movement may also be enhanced. "...They seem to be able to see the fish in their dim course underwater, the glint of moonlight on their outstretched fins as they leap, as well as, or perhaps better than, anyone else." In the particular example, fishing is made easier and may be done at night due to the colorblindness of the islanders. Ironically, the islands themselves are very colorful. But achromatopes do not respect the island for its color. In another instance, the island of Pingelap is only seen, by the colorblind, for it's beauty. To us, "color-normals," it seems rather meaningless, a jumble of a single color. The reader is also introduced and familiarized with several specific people of the islands. "Apart from the social problems it causes, Entis does not feel his colorblindness a disability." Specific examples are important in the development of sympathy and respect for the achromatopes and in taking the reader on the same journey that Oliver Sacks experienced. Imagery creates a vivid description of each encounter experienced by Dr. Sacks. This does anything but mitigate the reader; in contrast, the audience becomes more involved and therefore has a greater respect for each of the achromatopes of the islands. It is seen through Oliver Sacks' descriptions, that each individual is a special person in his or her own way. "While our equipment was loaded onto an improvised trolley - an unstable contraption of roughhewn planks on trembling bicycle wheels..." As Dr. Sacks shares his first experience with the people of Pingelap, he expresses through vivid imagery the unimportance of technology and the simplicity of the natives to the island. This helps to alleviate the misconcieved attitudes towards all the properties we hold dear, wealth and prosperity. Imagery also develops each example Oliver Sacks uses to take his audience on his excursion through the islands. For example, after fishing at night, Sacks describes and concludes the experience with glowing detail. "The sand itself, broader with the tide's retreat, was still wet with the phosphorescent sea, and now, as we walked upon it, our footsteps left a luminous spoor." Also, in the book of Guam, Sacks uses imagery, though his focus is not as much on his message of sympathy and respect for these who are achromatopes, he shares his experience well. "Clouds of tiny iridescent blue zebra fish swam around me, between my arms, between my legs, unstartled by my, movements" Here, Sacks is sharing his snorkeling adventure. Being a neurologist and an explorer/researcher, Dr. Oliver Sacks Iluminates himself through many medical terms and with professor like phrases that help create his tone for sharing his experiences of the islands. This diction used by Sacks can be seen through several examples from the text. His word choice, defined as scholarly, emphasizes a doctor like tone of voice. In most instances, Sacks uses medical terms to asseverate himself. "...He has difficulty fixating, hence his eyes make groping, hystagmic jerks." Diction can help the reader create a more focused and in depth thought or idea. This is used to develop respect and empathy for the patients and whose lives are effected by colorblindness through the author's journey to the islands. Specific examples, imagery, and diction coincide with one another to take the reader on a vivid jaunt through the Island of the Colorblind. This gives birth to a certain respect for the unique and indeed special islanders. It also teaches the audience to appreciate people for who they are and not for their incapability's. For many things "cannot be seen by color-normals," but only by the colorblind.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Another brilliant book By Dr. Oliver Sacks, this time about a community of color-blinds on a tiny island in the Pacific called Pingelap. He revels in this book that he has a fascination for Islands and when opportunity comes he packs off for this tiny island with two of his friends. One of his friends is from Norway (a psychologist) and himself achromatopic (completely color blind).

To reach the island they have to do a lot of island hopping and this account itself is worth reflection. There are army bases and nuclear test sites on the tiny island they stop by and the author has reflected well on these issues, their implications and their experiences with army when they get stranded once.

There is a strange quality about Dr. Sacks writing. He can make you wonder and almost enter the lives of the people he talks about. He has done so in his book `The man who mistook his wife for a hat...' and he has done it again in this book. We can probably never even imagine what it is to be color- blind, won't even reflect on something like this, after all we are so caught up in our normal lives. Consider a simple problem of recognising a ripe fruit with out being able to know the colour! But people do adapt and probably as Dr Sacks says they get over compensated in some other way.

The author and his friends get to meet many such people and try to provide the medical opinion but much more than that they get involved with the people, their daily life, their hopes and frustrations. And by the gift of his writing he can take you there too. Just pick up the book. It is not only about color-blinds in a medical sense but about their lives as a whole. And while reading don't ignore the notes to all the pages given at the end of the book. They are many a times much more interesting than the main text. I agree it makes reading a bit cumbersome but it is well worth it.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 1999
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I was transformed and transported by this book. As a physician, I was caught up totally and completely in the medical Sherlock Holmesian "whodunnit" quest for scientific answers. As a human being residing for a time on planet earth, I was immersed in the beauty and the mystery of places that seem almost fairy-like and magical through the keenly observant eyes of Dr. Sacks. As a soul flickering briefly on that continuum of deep time, I felt a profound sense of awe and existential brevity, but also a sense of connectedness and immortality.
Having just finished the book today, I am aware of a sadness within me, a sadness that my journey to the South Pacific with Dr. Sacks has ended. I return to my clinic tomorrow morning to see patients, but my heart for some days to come will be on Pingelap, or Guam, or.......
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Oliver Sacks describes, in beautiful depth, his childhood love of islands and his fascination with, in particular, the ancient cycad trees. He embarks on a expedition to the islands of the Pacific in order to research two extraordinary phenomena - a population which is largely achromatopic (colour-blind) and an island on which the causes of a mysterious paralysis have eluded scientists for decades. At the same time, he reveals his innate biophilia - an appreciation of life and the living world - which he believes is present to some degree in all men. He expresses this sentiment in many ways - in his sympathy towards his patients and his efforts to understand both their afflictions and their culture, and in his vivid description of the tropical plant and marine life which he beholds around him. The book contains a large section of well-researched footnotes, which indicate Oliver Sacks' extensive knowledge on the history and anthropology of these isolated populations. For all those with, as the author might say, even a slight degree of biophilia, this book should provide an interesting and informative account of the curious evolution of life on these islands of the Pacific.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Throughout his collected works Sacks dispenses his accumulated wit and wisdom with uncommon respect for his case studies. To Oliver, his patients are not just objects for study, but also people. He gives them grace and self-respect even among the most bizarre neurologic symptoms.
"Island of the Colorblind" is no exception, as he explores the compensatory visual acuity of his achromatics, and the good-natured fatalism of his Guam studies. The reader is left with real affection for the afflicted.
Sacks is a rare combination of inquiring mind and caring physician -- not to mention engaging writer. This book is a treat.
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