Believe it or not, this is not a fiction book (though the title might possible lead you to believe otherwise). It is in fact based on a real island of colour-blind people, visited by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks in the mid 1990s after writing about a colour-blind painter in his previous book An Anthropologist On Mars. Like all of Sacks’ books, it is utterly fascinating and thoroughly enlightening about some of the lesser known people and conditions in this world.
The Island Of The Colour-Blind follows Sacks as he hops between several islands in the Pacific, most notably the island Pingelap, where a congenital achromatopsia (essentially a condition in which you are born colour-blind, based on genetics) has affected a large amount of the population, creating an entire community of colour blind people who see the world in black and white. While it is a recessive gene, a typhoon some two centuries ago wiped out much of the population, and it is believed some of the key survivors carried the gene for this condition, so that today a third of the population of the island at least carry the gene, with 1 in 12 actually being colour-blind (compared to less than 1 in 30,000 elsewhere in the world).
The book is divided into two parts, with the second part then moving on mostly to Guam. There, the population have been suffering from a strange neurological disease for over a century that the native peoples call “lytico-bodig”. While the disease was the attention of a lot of research over the second half of last century, nobody could actually crack what it was or how to beat it, and slowly interest in it died down, though the disease itself did not. As the condition has strong similarities to the post-encephalitic parkinsonism that Oliver Sacks had treated and written about in his book Awakenings in the 1970s (which was turned into a film), a neurologist at Guam thought that maybe Sacks would be interested in it all, even if he couldn’t crack the problem either. And so we follow Sacks as he tries to find out if is the islanders’ diet of cycads that cause the disease, or if there’s more to the story than this.
As is often the case when reading Oliver Sacks, one of his strong points is his entire approach to neurology – he focuses on the person behind the disease or disorder, rather than the condition itself, and has proven on many occasions that you need to look at both aspects in order to solve the mysteries behind them, as different people will react to the same disease or disorder in completely different ways, especially in the world of neurology. As a result of this, his writing is very empathetic and sympathetic for these people, and his human interest is what helps draw the reader into the stories he weaves. I also love that in this book, rather than presenting a series of case studies as in most of his other books, he simply writes it as one long narrative, divided into a few segments (mostly the different islands he visits), and I found I wanted to keep reading the book to find out what happened at the end, much as one would with a novel.
While I’ve often said the best books by Oliver Sacks to begin delving into his work are Musicophilia or The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, I think this book in which he plays part neurologist, part anthropologist, and part storyteller, is also a very good book to begin reading this brilliant author and thinker. It’s accessible but very intelligent and insightful, and it will leave you thinking about what a weird and wonderful world we live in. A book I can definitely recommend to any and all readers!
Have you read this book, or any other books by Oliver Sacks? What are your thoughts of them? Would you be interested in visiting this “Island of the Colour-blind”?