The Island of the Colorblind

Charles Taylor reviews Oliver Sacks' novel "The Island of the Colorblind".

Published January 6, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Oliver Sacks' writings are as much about his own curiosity as they are about the medical mysteries he investigates. At his best, he removes any sense of embarrassment from his inquires. Perhaps better than any other writer, he understands what someone explains to him in his new book, "Island of the Colorblind:" that a sick person's sickness must become an acknowledged part of our response to that human being. Sacks' curiosity is the real thing. It is also, judging by this book, starting to wear a bit.

The tour of the Pacific islands Sacks writes about here resulted from a dovetailing of two interests: a lifelong fascination with islands and the case of an artist who went colorblind after a car accident, which is described in his last book, "An Anthropologist on Mars." Sacks had heard about an island where a large number of the inhabitants were colorblind. He enlisted the aid of Knut Nordby, a Norwegian physiologist who had written about a similar island in Norway. What they found on their journey makes up the first half of the book, while Sacks' trip to Guam, where a number of people suffered from a mysterious virus, makes up the second half. He sums up the elusive nature of this island disease thus: "The disease is indeed dying out at last, and the researchers who seek its cause grow more pressured, more vexed, by the day: Will the quarry ... elude them finally, tantalizingly, by disappearing at the moment they are about to grasp it?"

There's no doubting Sacks' attentiveness and compassion toward his patients. But "The Island of the Colorblind" makes me wish for a writer who could stay more on the point. His digressions are sometimes his finest moments, but Sacks' claim to be investigating the mystery of hereditary colorblindness can't disguise the fact that this book is an idiosyncratic and maddeningly circular travelogue. There's something charming about a man so willing to examine what catches his interest, but also something exasperating about one who's distracted by whatever comes into his line of view. It must be hell to have him with you when you're trying to duck in and out of the market for a few things.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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