Oliver Sacks, Island of the Colorblind

I've had Oliver Sacks' The Island of the Colorblind on the shelf for a while, and for most of that time I've meant to get to it. To my eyes, Sacks' books are light reading about complex and important subjects, so they're both appealing and off-putting at the same time. I was reminded during this one of Gabor Mate's habit of inserting himself into his stories about other people (see my cautious review of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts), but Sacks has been writing for far longer and has a far larger audience, so -- Sacks isn't borrowing from Mate, is what I'm saying.

Fascinating stuff in this book, which is really two linked stories. The first one is about Pingelap, an island in Micronesia, and the Pingelapese: a large proportion of them are achromats, with a specific form of colorblindness, and Sacks goes to visit them as well as to encounter the place. Not long afterward, he has a chance to visit Guam to see both cycads (kind of like palms), plus other crazy flora/fauna on Guam and Rota, as well as people with lytico-botig, which is either one or two progressive sclerosis-type illnesses with a completely unknown etiology and mechanism.*

Both places are shockingly beautiful, as I gather tropical places are, though I wouldn't know about that -- sigh -- and the people are warm/deep, in line with the standard expectations for such a place. My favourite part of the book were the detailed footnotes, because clearly Sacks had a different book in mind that his editor and publisher talked him out of. His footnotes show the marks of numerous obsessions, something I'm always happy to see in someone else, and I'm not sure how he was talked out of following them.

Kind of a fun book, though not particularly relevant. Both halves of the volume are about unusual concentrations of rare medical conditions in specific places completely unlike my own, so it's not really my thing, but I had a good time reading it anyway.

* - Since his visit, and after completing the book, Sacks has now argued very convincingly that lytico-bodig was caused by the consumption of now-extinct flying foxes (did I mention crazy fauna?) which would have accumulated in their bodies toxic concentrations of a cycad's amino acid found in high levels ONLY in Guam's endemic cycad species.


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