The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island by Oliver Sacks
Originally published in Creative Loafing
Seeing Through Sacks' Eyes
"There is a grandeur in this view of life." -- Charles Darwin, Origin of the Species
In The Island of the Colorblind, Oliver Sacks embarks upon an adventure that must have been nearly as exciting for him as Darwin's enlightening journey to the Galapagos Islands. The famous neurologist, who also is the author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars, first conceived of the trip when he discovered that one of the Caroline Islands--Pingelap--held an unusually large community of achromatopes. Individuals with achromatopsia are born not only colorblind, but they also are light intolerant and unable to see fine detail.
Inspired by childhood readings of H.G. Wells (The Country of the Blind), Sacks wondered about the condition of such a uniquely individuated group of people living in isolation. He wished to explore what it meant to be colorblind and to live in a colorblind community. Sacks was joined by an American ophthalmologist named Robert Wasserman and Knut Nordby, a Norwegian physiologist and achromatope. These unlikely trailblazers converged in Hawaii and began island-hopping their way towards Pingelap.
Since Sacks was the one who wrote the book, the resulting work is not a dry, detached account of interactions with these unusual people; rather, The Island of the Colorblind is a thoroughly engaging, often humorous and touching account. Much of the joy in reading Sacks lies in witnessing the sheer glee and childlike wonder with which he approaches every escapade. Never just a neurologist, Sacks proves also to be a capable botanist, an incisive sociologist, and even a sort of secular missionary, cheerily dispensing sunglasses and other visual aids to the optically impaired natives of Pingelap.
The second section of the book describes Sacks' trip to Guam to study the cycads, palm-like evergreens found throughout that area, and their possible relationship to a neurological disorder the natives call lytico-bodig. The book concludes with a section of helpful and interesting notes.
As this book confirms, the characteristic of Sacks which endears him to readers the most is his love for humanity: he is capable of discovering and describing beauty in any person, no matter how seemingly disturbed, disfigured, or impaired.