Oliver Sacks has always been fascinated by islands--their remoteness, their mystery, above all the unique forms of life they harbor. For him, islands conjure up equally the romance of Melville and Stevenson, the adventure of Magellan and Cook, and the scientific wonder of Darwin and Wallace. Drawn to the tiny Pacific atoll of Pingelap by intriguing reports of an isolated community of islanders born totally color-blind, Sacks finds himself setting up a clinic in a one-room island dispensary, where he listens to these achromatopic islanders describe their colorless world in rich terms of pattern and tone, luminance and shadow. And on Guam, where he goes to investigate the puzzling neurodegenerative paralysis endemic there for a century, he becomes, for a brief time, an island neurologist, making house calls with his colleague John Steele, amid crowing cockerels, cycad jungles, and the remains of a colonial culture. The islands reawaken Sacks' lifelong passion for botany--in particular, for the primitive cycad trees, whose existence dates back to the Paleozoic--and the cycads are the starting point for an intensely personal reflection on the meaning of islands, the dissemination of species, the genesis of disease, and the nature of deep geologic time.
Neurologist Sacks, famed for his investigations of unusual medical conditions (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, etc.), went to Micronesia in 1993 to study firsthand two rare disorders: achromatopsia, or total congenital color blindness, which afflicts more than 5% of the population on the islands of Pingelap and Pohnpei; and lytico-bodig, a fatal, progressive neurodegenerative disease common in Guam, causing paralysis, dementia and catatonia. His total immersion in island life makes this luminous, beautifully written report a wondrous voyage of discovery. Most of those born color-blind never learn to read because they can't see the teacher's writing on the board; they can't work outdoors in bright light, and are unable to see fine detail; yet many achromatopes, Sacks found, develop acute compensatory memory skills and curiosity and thus live in a world of heightened reality. On Guam he visited families tragically scarred by lytico-bodig, a disease blamed by some scientists on the natives' ingestion of cycad trees' toxic seeds; other researchers suspect that the cause can be traced to a virus, diet as a whole or genetics. With aplomb, Sacks wears many hats�cultural anthropologist, naturalist, explorer, ethnographer, neuroscientist�as he delves into the islands' volcanic origins, their archeological wonders (e.g., Pohnpei's megalithic ruins, remnants of a monumental civilization), their unique flora and fauna (nocturnal tree-climbing snakes, iridescent ferns, dwarf forests), their bloody colonial history under Spanish and German rule, their still active indigenous myths. As a travel writer, Sacks ranks with Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin. As an investigator of the mind's mysteries, he is in a class by himself. Illustrated with drawings, maps. 150,000 first printing; Literary Guild selection; Random House audio. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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November 14, 2012
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