Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks

The Island of the Colorblind
by Oliver Sacks
Alfred A Knopf, 1997
298 pages

There is something about the way that Oliver Sacks writes that I find both enchanting and vaguely uncomfortable. His narrative is always intensely personal in a way that can be delightful -- accessible, charming, and incredibly smart -- but also slightly uncomfortable, because, as he admits himself, he can be querulous and anxiety-prone, and the reader can't help but pick up on that sometimes. His writing reveals a rather intimate portrait. It's not annoying, but it's the sort of thing that we're conditioned to politely look away from, I think? But Sacks always lays it all out there on the line, without drawing undue attention to his neuroses. I suspect, being a neurologist, he's more aware than most of his own tendencies.

Island of the Colorblind is a travel journal, more like Oaxaca Journal than The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which is rather the opposite of what I was expecting. Unlike Oaxaca Journal, though, the purpose of Sacks' travel in this case was based in his job as a neurologist. It's split into two parts, the first being a chronicle of his journey to the titular island, a tiny atoll called Pingelap, and the second being a chronicle of his unrelated journey to Guam. The thread holding the two together is very thin indeed, but could be identified as his interest in islands and the biological consequences of isolation. In both cases, he made his journey to investigate a neurological phenomenon present in abnormally high numbers on their respective islands: on Pingelap, achromatopia, a complete colourblindness; on Guam, lytico-bodig, a serious and extremely complicated neurodegenerative disease showing remarkable likenesses to his post-encephalitic patients back in New York. However, don't let the fact that he's there as a neurologist fool you; Oliver Sacks is in love with plants, so we get plenty of information and exposure to the botanical life on the islands as well. Overall, it's a fascinating melding of neuroscience, botany, history, and culture that makes for really interesting reading.

Interesting, but not always comfortable. The first chapter, "Island Hopping," sounds like it might be a relatively pleasant way to start the book, but it was easily the most depressing chapter. It's not Sacks' fault, as he's working with the material he's given: specifically, a rather arduous airplane journey through the Marshall Islands before they get to Pingelap, in the Carolines. These were inhabited at one point, many of them, pre-American nuclear testing. Some of the experiences Sacks has on his way to tiny Pingelap are harrowing (from a damaged plane to an enforced landing on a brutally military island) and the brief notes he makes about some of the islands are extremely unsettling. Throughout the book there are often small hints of bleakness; discussing the diet of the islanders and its reliance on Spam, melancholy notes about environmental degradation, comments on the historical treatment of the island cultures by various colonial powers.

And when I say notes, I also mean endnotes; some of the bleakest stuff has been relegated to the [wonderfully eclectic and comprehensive] endnotes. I usually prefer footnotes, but some of these are so long as to be completely unmanageable. I tended to read the full chapter, then read the notes for the chapter second; they were almost a full chapter in themselves. None of them are, by definition, integral to the narrative or the understanding of the book, but they make the reading a richer experience.

Interesting to think that this was published nearly twenty years ago now, with the trips themselves being earlier; many of the people Sacks met are likely dead or retired, and many of the environments he saw are likely changed beyond recognition; one wonders, for example, if Pingelap can survive a sea-level rise? A sobering thought amongst several sobering thoughts brought to light by this book.

Sacks is especially good when he gets talking about his passions. The entire last chapter of the book, "Rota," is basically about cycads. Along with ferns, these are a particular passion and fascination of Sacks', and in this chapter he is both whimsical and whip-smart, so incredibly learned that he talks well above this reader's head, but I didn't mind. His enthusiasm carried me along. He takes much knowledge on the reader's part for granted, without making one feel stupid if one didn't follow exactly what he was talking about. In fact, it got this reader more excited about looking things up than frustrated with my lack of knowledge. I'm more excited than ever, too, about reading Darwin, which I have been meaning to do for ages. Leading a reader to want to learn more, in a passionate and immediate way, is a special gift that some nonfiction writers have, and some don't. Sacks has it in spades.

Not just for the topics, either, but also for words themselves. Sacks has a remarkable vocabulary and he's not afraid to use it. My favourite word from the book, favourite enough that it has entered my functional vocabulary, is "horripilation" -- synonymous with, but so much more delicious and specific than, goose bumps, and obscure enough that I haven't found a spellchecker familiar with it yet.

"At one point," he added, "people wondered if the lytico might be caused by some similar kind of fish poisoning -- but we've never found any evidence of this."
Thinking of the delectable sushi I had looked forward to all day, I was conscious of a horripilation rippling up my spine. "I'll have chicken teriyaki, maybe an avocado roll -- no fish today," I said.

It is interesting to me that overall the sections on botany and culture made far more of an impression on me than the neuroscience parts of the book did. I think the second part, set on Guam, is a stronger piece overall than the first, set on Pingelap; the first seemed a bit more rambling and less focused, and also one gets the faint impression that Sacks, while he enjoyed himself, wasn't quite as engaged. On Guam, however, he unfolds the mystery of lytico-bodig disease for the reader with careful precision, making connections and sharing his admiration for his host. And the final chapter, as mentioned above, deals with lytico-bodig not at all, but with cycads, which Sacks clearly loves and thinks are utterly worthy of everyone's attention, interest, and respect.

I don't think this is the best Sacks I've ever read, but it was thoroughly enjoyable, and I'm very glad I read it. Chewy without being intimidating, and very very readable, as Sacks always is. Recommended for popular science junkies, people with an interest in islands, armchair travelers, and anyone who is open to learning something new.

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