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Picks and Pans Review: The Island of the Colorblind

updated 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Oliver Sacks

The preeminent neurologist and author (Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) ventures to Micronesia in this mesmerizing account of two journeys—the first to the Pacific atoll of Pingelap, home to an isolated community suffering from total hereditary color blindness; the second to Guam, where lytico-bodig, a fatal neurodegenerative paralysis, has plagued the natives for a century. Sacks's portraits of the afflicted are both compassionate and awestruck. He describes Pingelap islanders who work as night fishers, since the colorblind see best at dawn, at dusk and on moonlit evenings. On Guam he encounters the elderly Jesus, who passes his days mute and motionless as a tortoise unless someone speaks to him or makes the first move—in which case he can roughhouse with his grandsons or play a mean game of gin. But Sacks digresses—brilliantly: One-fifth of the book is notes, tangents of thought that turn Island into a personal meditation. He muses on his childhood love of islands, botany and the primitive, palm-like cycad tree (long suspected to be the cause of lytico-bodig); he reflects on the spread of species and of disease and on the unfathomable reaches of geologic time. As always, one's world is richer for having spent some with Sacks. (Knopf, $24)

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