Book Review: The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks
The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks
My first experience with Oliver Sacks came from a college course entitled Consciousness. We were given a crash course in the relevant basics of philosophy and then we went on to look at artificial intelligence and neuroscience in an attempt to understand just what consciousness might or might not be. The professor chose The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, also by Oliver Sacks, as an anecdotal introduction to what consciousness is like for different sorts of people. Organized as a series of case studies dealing with neurological conditions, the book provoked many of the class's most meaningful discussion. The tone and content of Sacks's work broke down some barriers between the students, and we all began confiding our own experiences with mental illness. Whether it was personal struggles with depression, relatives with bipolar disorder, or even my professor's own son, who had suffered severe seizures that required drastic medical intervention, we all had something to share and we connected over it. Some of my fondest college memories are from that class. So, I've always been eager for the opportunity to read more of his work.
In December of 2013, Sacks did an interview on Science Friday where he mentioned The Island of the Colorblind. Though I have no intimate experiences with colorblindness, a high school instructor of mine had protanopia. My teacher spoke openly about his experiences with it, light heartedly describing how his wife would always double check his outfits to make sure they color-coordinated. Memories of his stories have always stuck with me and after listening to Sacks discuss his fascination with all forms of colorblindness, I was highly intrigued by the premise of the book, that there existed somewhere out there an island which had a significant population of colorblind.
I began reading expecting a format similar to that of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in which Sacks simply discussed his clinical experiences with patients. It quickly became obvious that my assumptions here were incorrect though. “The Island of the Colorblind” is less of an educational jaunt through Sacks's professional work as it is a travel journal of his trip through Micronesia and Guam and an exploration of his childhood passions for botany and cycads in particular. I will admit that I was somewhat disappointed early on to realize the reality of the book, but that passed quickly as I became swept up in the adventurous tone of his tale. It read like a charming story that an uncle might tell at a family gathering, and, having listened to his interview, I could distinctly hear it play out in his voice.
There are, of course, drawbacks to this sort of story being shared in writing. He often abandons action in favor of recollections or tangents. He fondly stops to describe experiences swimming and eating local food. It is sometimes difficult to discern exactly what the main point of a section is, or whether there even is a main point. However, though these parts are somewhat cumbersome to read through, I still found that they gave the book a sense of personal charm. I enjoyed them. All of the little details he shared allowed me to maintain a clear picture of what was happening throughout the book. I could see the cycad forests. I could feel the warm water. I could see the villagers with their visors and sun glasses. And by the end, almost as if by accident, I found myself much more knowledgeable about colorblindness, cycads and even just the realities of disease in isolated communities. I knew a little bit more history, geography, medicine, and even politics than I did before.
The book contains an extensive section of notes, which offer additional educational information. These could be skipped entirely and the core of the book would still be enjoyable, but I would recommend taking the time to keep up with them. Sometimes they would contain more detailed information on a certain subject, but there were also personal accounts and expert opinions that I felt really added to the book. Reading a native's perspective on a cultural reality or scientific explanation of a plant's medical properties gave me a fuller sense of the story.
It would be difficult to commend Island of the Colorblind for it's writing alone. It is easy to read, but it suffers from organizational issues and a lack of focus. However, that being said, I don't really think that Sacks set out to make a literary masterpiece. For me, the heart of this book is experiential. It made me feel like I was traveling and visiting these islands. It made me feel like I was meeting interesting people and seeing these strange plants. But most of all, it made me share Sacks' sense of how miniscule humanity is in the expanse of time. This kinship and the feelings that it stirred up make the book more than a worthwhile read.
To sum it up:
-Very effective at communicating the author's feelings and experiences
-Narrative sometimes distracted and slowed down by asides
-Sometimes suffers from poor organization
Provocative ideas raised:
-History of plants- evolutionary phases and ancestors
-(For those who, like me, have little knowledge of plants) What is a cycad?
-State of medicine in Pacific Islands
-Magnified effects of hereditary illness on isolated communities
-And, of course, realities and impacts of colorblindness
You might like this if you're interested in:
-Oliver Sacks, Botany, Charles Darwin, Evolution, Cycads, History of the Pacific Islands, Colorblindness, Hereditary Disease
If you like this, you may also like:
-Oliver Sacks and the Search for the Giant Squid by Science Friday (Radio segment available online)
-The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by Charles Darwin
-Making Sense of Micronesia by Francis X Hezel
-Destiny's Landfall: A History of Guam by Robert F Rogers
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
-Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
-The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara (Another travel journal)
-Lost (TV series)