Sticking with It: When to give up on a book

I don’t have a hard and fast rule about when to give up on a book. I’ve often thought I should have one but have never been able to decide upon what the rule should be. Nor am I sure if indeed I should have such a rule. Sometimes you just know you’re not going to get to the end of a book, from the first few pages you just know it’s not for you. I don’t like making snap judgements about books but sometimes you just know. Equally there are other books you stick with even though you have negative feelings about it based on the first few pages or the first chapter. I stick with it usually because someone has promised me I’ll love it. I’m reading a book right now that required me to make a decision of that nature. Whether I should force myself to continue reading it. The book in question is “A Man Named Ove.” I was excited about getting it and I liked it at first. Then about fifty pages in something changed. When I realised I was spending more time thinking about the book than actually reading it then I decided to give it another shot. In doing so I found that continuing is the right course of action and also came across a potential reason why I stopped reading it.

As the title suggests it’s about a man named Ove. His wife died recently and he plans to kill himself to be with her. Because he thinks he can’t live without her. As he put it he never lived before he met her and not afterwards either. I’ve read a little over 100 pages and so far two of his suicide attempts have been interrupted by his neighbours in some way. In other words life keeps getting in the way. His determination to complete his task is still there but he’s doing these things, helping these people because his wife would want him to. She’s gone but he’s still living for her. He wants to be with her but he doesn’t really want to die.

Death and deliberations over such matters is something which occupies my thoughts quite a bit of the time. Without realising it the book got to me. It’s why I stopped reading it I think. I’ve never gotten that far in such a plan but I’ve certainly made a lot of plans. Like with Ove life just keeps getting in the way. The problems remain, the reasons for wanting to do it are the same but there’s also reasons not to. And those reasons aren’t real. There are times I want everything to go away and I think the only way to achieve that is by not being alive anymore. Except it’s not really what I want, I have to keep reminding myself of that fact when I think such thoughts. It’s what Ove himself is learning. At least I hope he realises it by the end of the book anyway.

To get back to the topic of giving up on books it’s not something I do often. I can remember the few books I’ve started and given up on. Three autism related books, one which was written by a so called professional and I had to stop reading because the way the author talked about people with autism and learning disabilities was just downright offensive. Two others which were personal accounts, one I just didn’t get along with and the other wasn’t especially well written. Though it’s a translation so that may be the reason. Either way I couldn’t finish it. Another book I gave up on after reading just a few pages was one about a team of soldiers who’s role is to defuse explosive devices. It covered their tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan. It felt like it was trying to be Generation Kill and I realised I’d rather just read that again than a cheap imitation.

Unless I really hate a book I don’t like to give up on it. I don’t know why, maybe my obsessive and completionist nature has something to do with it. I’m more likely to put aside a book and come back to it later than give up. I did eventually finish A Man Named Ove and it was worth the battle to finish it. All those people who got in the way, or he saw as getting in the way, he helped them without even knowing it. His life with his wife was over but it didn’t mean his life had to end.Without even trying to he found that his life still had purpose. He carried on doing what he always did, helping people and always doing the right thing. And he never did get around to killing himself.

I know from reading reviews online that some people found the book a little too depressing, that they didn’t like the fact Ove complained about everything. But he didn’t, he just called things as he saw them. Not everyone likes to pretend that everything is all fun and games, that life is great. It’s one of the things I liked about Ove, that he didn’t feel the need to pretend. I don’t usually like books about relationships or romance of any kind but this I liked. Seeing the effect his wife had on him was sweet. It didn’t matter how other people saw him, he knew she loved him and that she could see the real him. It’s all that mattered.

Some books you have to battle with to finish and others you get through so fast you’re disappointed you read it so quickly. The book I finished reading yesterday falls into the latter category. The book in question is Shtum. It’s about an autistic boy named Jonah and his parents fight to get him into a school which can meet his needs. Right up until the end of the book I thought it was perfect. It gets all the autism stuff right (which is to be expected because the author has an autistic child) and it doesn’t sugarcoat it. It shows honestly the challenges of taking care of an autistic child and more importantly of the way such challenges are made more difficult by the very people who are meant to help. It illustrates perfectly the cruelty of the bureaucracy in relation to the education system and special needs. The author employs a neat trick to do this, part of the story is told through letters and reports about Jonah. Laid bare in front of you is the often dehumanizing way such systems view children like Jonah. The way they reduce them to meaningless phrases and statistics. One point he makes well in this way is the fact the education system points out they only have to provide an appropriate education for Jonah. Not the best, not one which is most suited to him, it just has to be “appropriate.” You wouldn’t accept that for a non-disabled child so why is it good enough for a disabled one? And what they mean by appropriate is often far from it. They want to send him to a standard special school, one where they won’t really teach him anything. He’ll spend his days in a classroom just being occupied, being kept busy.

In some ways it succeeds where the TV show The A Word failed. The book is mainly about autism but it shows the rest of their life too, it makes it perfectly clear that whilst autism does take over your life in a sense the world around you is still there. Showing the constant battle with the education authorities and social care and all the rest of it the book makes one very pertinent point. The autism is difficult to deal with, but it’s not what necessarily consumes your life and runs you down till you have nothing left to give. More often that not it’s the refusal of the education authorities to do what they are meant to. The way the system works kids are set up to fail. In fact when it comes to autism they have to fail before they can get help. That’s the kind of thinking the system is predicated on when it comes to autism. They won’t just send them to an appropriate school to begin with. You have to try mainstream first, fail terribly, watch it at all fall apart and then get the right placement. They seem not to care that they’re destroying a person in the process.

Not pulling any punches means the book may make some people feel uncomfortable. No doubt they’d prefer the world portrayed in The A Word where you get whatever you need just by asking for it. In spite of showing how hard it can be to take care of an autistic child the book also shows how much they love their son. It gets across the point that finding it hard to take care of him doesn’t mean they love him any less. They aren’t sending him away to school for their own sake or because they want him gone, it’s what best for him.

The book itself is perfect, it’s the afterword that’s the problem. There’s two points I find contentious. First of all the author likes and praises The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I’m disappointed that anyone who knows anything about autism can like that book. It’s a book based on crude stereotypes and does nothing to change perceptions of autism. Secondly he talks about how views of autism have changed in recent years. How autism, especially Aspergers has almost become fashionable and that it’s even been adopted as a badge of honour. In his words “This was galling to me and, no doubt to the countless other families dealing with the day-to-day misunderstandings and devastation it could bring.”

Now I don’t view it as a badge of honour, but it’s a part of me and I accept that. What’s the alternative, to be ashamed of it? Also he’s speaking for himself, he should realise that, his view is not necessarily one other people share. Whether that be autistic people themselves or their parents and families. You can recognise the difficulties it causes and be sad about that yet at the same time be proud of the good things. It’s a shame because one good point I was going to make about the book was that it gets across the fact it’s not all doom and gloom, yes it’s hard but there are funny moments and happy ones just like with any other child. This is one count The A Word fails on to me,  but then his mother is too obsessed with making him normal than accepting her son for who he is and trying to make him happy, so that’s no surprise really.

It’s the fact he specifically referred to Aspergers that annoys me, the reason being that sometimes people like to try to make the argument that it’s not a real disability, not in comparison to “real autism.” I’m not saying he’s implying that but still it bugs me. In the foreword his son is described as being “profoundly autistic.” In other words his experience is of a severely autistic child with learning difficulties. Point is his experience is not with Aspergers. So maybe he should refrain from commenting on or trying to tell to us how we should view it. If someone who has Aspergers wants to view it as “a badge of honour” then that’s their prerogative. It’s not the way I feel about it, but if someone feels that way about it then I respect that.

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