Oliver Sacks: The Island of the Colour-blind

I went to Micronesia as a neurologist, or neuroanthropologist … but I also found myself riveted by the cultural life and history of these islands, their unique flora and fauna, their singular geological origins. If seeing patients, visiting archaeological sites, wandering in rainforests, snorkeling in the reefs, at first seemed to bear no relation to each other, they then fused into a single unpartitionable experience, a total immersion in island life.

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Part 1

in which the writer explains why she re-read this book when she did

Even though I feel now like Oliver Sacks and his books have always been part of me, it was only by accident that I first came to discover him. I picked up my first Sacks book in an airport shop solely because of its surreal title and its cover in the style of Magritte, who at that point I’d just discovered. After reading that one, though, I was hooked, and I read pretty much every one of his other books over the next few years – including this one.

Right now I’m on holiday in Micronesia, the setting for the adventures in this book. I can’t remember where the germ of the idea for this holiday of ours came from, but I do know that if it wasn’t for The Island of the Colour-blind and the images it lodged in my imagination when I first read it, I wouldn’t have had the determination to make the trip a reality.

So I decided it was only right to bring the book along and re-read it on an island somewhere.

Part 2

in which the topic of the book is outlined

Oliver Sacks is a London-born professor of neurology. He’s perhaps most famous for some work he did with post-encephalitic Parkinson’s disease patients, the story of which became so astounding that it later got made into the film Awakenings where Sacks was portrayed by Robin Williams.

Some time in the early 1990s, Sacks hears about an island in Micronesia with a high incidence of total colour-blindness. Fascinated by the idea of an H. G. Wellsian ‘Country of the Blind’ – a place where a whole population with the same disability can come to turn their sensory deficiencies to advantage – he assembles a team of traveling compadres with different specialties, and together they travel to Pohnpei and its outlying island Pingelap.

But that’s just one trip – and one half of the book. In the other half, he talks about a separate trip he makes to Guam where he (a) checks out some cool plants, (b) swims in some nice spots, and (c) investigates possible causes of a strange neurological condition that’s affected many people there.

Part 3

in which the writer tries to explain why, despite what you might be thinking after reading that previous paragraph, this book is actually freaking awesome

There are two ways to try and describe why this book is great: a descriptive answer and an illustrative answer.

Part 3a: answer attempted by means of description

Firstly, Sacks is always a joy to read. If you’re feeling good it’ll fire your curiosity and imagination, and if you’re feeling world-weary it’ll remind you of how great people and places can be.

He kind of keeps the ultimate travel journal in this book. He goes to places and does (often) the same things other people do, but where they might experience a beach or a town or a boring plane flight or a scrappy jungle, Sacks sees the pith of life, the richness of history, and an insanely delicate and delightful web of interconnections between things. In a genetic condition he sees suffering and dignity; in a fern he sees the depths of evolutionary time; and in encounters with Spam Barons, missionaries and military might he sees profundities of cultural forces.

And then he shares it all with us like we were close and natural friends, and he does so with the aid of copious footnotes and endnotes full of in-depth observations or extra info.*

In The Art of Travel Alain de Botton says that the reason we often feel disappointed in our travel experiences is because when we’re planning them, looking at the brochure photos of picture perfect beaches and smiling couples, we forget that we will also be there with all our insecurities, moodinesses and imperfections. Reading Oliver Sacks not only takes you to these wonderful places, but he also lets you visit as a much better, more compassionate, more passionate and more intelligent person, too.

Also, you get to follow along with the unfolding mystery of the source of the Lytico-Bodig illness in Guam – a kind of exciting medico-scientific Sherlock Holmesesque investigation with lots of twists and turns. Brilliant.

Part 3b: answer attempted by means of illustration

Description of Pohnpei by commenter on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum:

Disagree about Pohnpei [being idyllic] – as a mangrove island it is very hard to get to the water, although I understand that they have put in a small manmade beach which would be a tremendous improvement.

Description of Pohnpei from The Island of the Colour-blind:

… when we awoke the next morning, we saw what had been intimated in the darkness of our arrival: that Pohnpei was not another flat coral atoll, but an island mountain, with peaks rising precipitously into the sky, their summits hidden in the clouds. The steep slopes were wreathed in thick green jungle, with streams and waterfalls tracing down their sides. Below this we could see rolling hills, some cultivated, all about us, and, looking toward the coastline, a fringe of mangroves, with barrier reefs beyond. Though I had been fascinated by the atolls – Johnston, Majuro, even Kwajelein – this high volcanic island, cloaked in jungle and clouds, was utterly different, a naturalist’s paradise.

I was strongly tempted to miss our plane and strand myself in this magical place for a month or two, or perhaps a year, the rest of my life – it was with reluctance, and a real physical effort, that I joined the others for our flight onward to Pingelap. As we took off, we saw the entire island spread out beneath us. Melville’s description of Tahiti in Oomo, I thought, could as well have been Pohnpei:

“…It is no exaggeration to sat, that to a European of any sensibility, who, for the first time, wanders back into these valleys – the ineffable repose and beauty of the landscape is such that every object strikes him like something seen in a dream.”

Who would you rather travel with? I rest my case.

Part 4

in which it is explained how this book plus our holiday give more than the sum of their parts

It’s easy to imagine how short stays like ours in Guam and Pohnpei could end up being just a series of superficial discoveries: some sightseeing, some banal observations, some eating and sleeping and sunning.

Because Sacks was there though, we’d be able to drive through a small town and see it not just as a group of buildings around a tiny bay, but rather know it as the town of Magellan’s landing, the epicentre of the mysterious Lytico-Bodig,  the hometown of the compassionate and dedicated Dr Steele, a microcosm or cultural ebbs and flows, the residence of a remarkable family who is part of a strong traditional culture, and so on.

Part 5

in which a conclusion of sorts is drawn

I was once on a writers’ panel where I named this book as my favourite travel book of all time. Of course it is not really ‘travel’ writing, but I stand by it. And now it’s made my own travels more pleasurable too. Thanks Dr Sacks for being awesome.

◊  ◊  ◊

*Footnotes being, of course, the hyperlinks of the paperback. Flipping to the back to read each one gives you a feeling like you’re on a treasure hunt and have just found a chocolate frog. Or… maybe that’s just me.

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This book was partly read on Pohnpei…

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… and partly on Tumon Beach in Guam.

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