“Not all differences lead to disability. Some lead to exceptionality.”

Books on Tap met virtually on Thursday, February 4 to discuss Switched On by John Elder Robison. We began by sharing some fun, quirky moments from the book that strayed from the central narrative but were memorable nonetheless. We were all delighted to remember the passage in which we learned that Gene Simmons dated Diana Ross (who knew?). Not the kind of facts we expected to glean from this book, but as we quickly discovered, Robison is a Renaissance man, and rock and roll is just one area well within his wheelhouse. 

This memoir follows Robison’s journey as an adult participating in an experimental new brain therapy, TMS, to “understand and then address the issues at the heart of autism.” John had lived his entire life with one of the characteristic signs of autism: difficulty understanding other people’s emotions. Suddenly, emotions were inescapable — in other people and in himself. 

We were a mixed bag in how we enjoyed the book. Some liked the book, others hated it, and still others found some parts interesting and other parts hard to get through. One critique was that the book was filled with anecdotal stories and didn’t generate any new thinking about autism. Of course we had to remember that the book is a memoir and orient our expectations accordingly. The writing style is technical at times, almost hyper-focused, which is reminiscent of Robison’s gifts that allow him to be fully immersed in certain experiences: seeing sound waves, or into the inner workings of machines, for instance. 

If you were John Robison, newly diagnosed with autism, with the opportunity to participate in the study involving TMS therapy and a potential “awakening of emotions,” would you? This was one of the core questions we discussed as a group, which also led to discussion about involving minors, and what sort of support we believed should have been in place for Robison and others as they navigated potentially personality-altering experiences. The undertaking affected Robison’s relationships with family, friends, customers, and even people featured in his memories, and we all agreed that counseling and more robust social support would have been beneficial to Robison. Weighing the pros and cons would be tough to do, especially in an experimental setting, when the pros and cons aren’t even definitive. The book, in this way, created more questions than answers — food for thought. 

We also landed on the word “fix” that Robison used throughout the book. Do autistic people need “fixing”? Is it cruel, or even dangerous, to drive society toward a mythical “neurotypical”? Times are also changing…autism is understood so much more today, but questions still remain, and as understanding grows, the questions do, too. Questions about early interventions, misdiagnoses, and more. We don’t have all the answers, and neither does Robison, but we have our individual stories to share. There’s a saying that goes, “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Reading and sharing stories is how we can know more and support more people while honoring individual differences. 

Other suggested titles: 

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang 

Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary

Explore more: 

NPR Interview Featuring Robison and Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone (from the TMS study)

Robison featured on PBS NewsHour

UVA Researchers Using Grant to Develop New Test for Autism 

Perspective Piece on Pandemic Mask-Wearing and Autism

National Library of Medicine Reading Club: Disability Health (lots of great links and resources here about ASD, development, and disabilities)

JMRL was able to acquire new copies of Switched On in paperback format thanks to funding from the NNLM Reading Club. Books on Tap will meet again on March 4 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell@jmrl.org).  We’ll be reading Red at the Bone, written by JMRL’s 2021 Same Page author Jacqueline Woodson (jmrl.org/samepage).

March 4 : Red at the Bone by Jacquline Woodson

April 1 (no foolin’) :  Elevation by Stephen King

“But why would anyone—officer, seaman, or scientist—volunteer for such a risky and difficult mission in the Arctic?”

Books on Tap’s first  virtual meeting of 2021 featured In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. A non-fiction examination of the 1879-1881 voyage of the USS Jeannette to discover the northwest passage was a suitable match for our own mostly home-bound winter of 2021. The New York Herald editor, James Gordon Bennett, was looking to finance another sensational expedition after his paper sponsored the “rescue” of Dr. Livingstone (and selling many papers in the process). He tapped experienced polar captain George Washington DeLong to lead a team of 32 men in search of a warm current that would lead them to a green island at the top of the world. Pretty quickly the men were trapped in ice for two years, at which point the hull breached and the ship quickly sank. The men then faced a thousand mile trek to Siberia with few supplies and fewer hopes of rescue. 

Sides packs lots of his research into this adventure tale, and much like the men of the Jeannette, we readers all bogged down at various points. It’s hard to make a marooned ship interesting, but then again we all made it though to the end compelled to find out what happened to our favorite characters, like Captain DeLong, engineer George Melville (yes, a relative of that other whale obsessed Melville) and James Ambler the ship’s doctor. 

DeLong comes through as the hero of the story, preparing the ship and choosing men whom he could rely on and who in turn trusted him. An optimistic man by nature, he met each setback with determination and grit. He was matched in his optimism by his wife Emma, whose letters Sides used as a primary source. Much like Elizabeth Hamilton, wife of Alexander, Emma kept her husband’s legacy alive. 

We discussed the bravery of the men, especially the rescuers who kept up their mission despite great risk to themselves. We also compared polar exploration to space exploration, both cold, inhospitable unknowns of vast differences. 

Sides was smart to pick an obscure voyage since none of our readers knew how it would end. Despite long stretches where the men go nowhere, we kept reading to see who survived and how their logs and diaries were preserved. We talked about the luck and chance that both benefited the crew at points and doomed some of them at others. In all, we agreed it was a journey best experienced at home with a warm drink. 

Books on Tap will meet again on February 4 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org).  We’ll be reading  Switched On by John Elder Robison, which the library owns in multiple formats. 

More Information:
About the author
Other titles by Sides  
Interview with the author
Find images of the crew and the voyage at the Politics & Prose  recorded discussion
Map of the route
Logbooks in the National Archives 

Other Titles Recommended :
Disappearing Earth by Juila Phillips
The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
The Terror by Dan Simmons
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
Woolly : The True Story Of The Quest To Revive One Of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich
Other icy read alikes at JMRL Upcoming Meetings:
February 4: Switched On by John Elder Robison
March : Red at the Bone by Jacquline Woodson
April :  Elevation by Stephen King

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Books on Tap met virtually to discuss Travels with Charley: In Search of America  by John Steinbeck. In 1960 Steinbeck loaded up a trailer he named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse) and his poodle Charley and circumnavigated the US.  Nearing the end of his life, he wanted to see for himself what modern Americans were like. Along the way, he ruminates about social, racial and environmental changes. Charley both provides structure to Steinbeck’s days and is an ambassador to the folks they meet. 

Most book club members had read at least one book by Steinbeck and enjoyed this one. It  has been criticized for being fictionalized but our readers didn’t expect it to be the definitive travelogue. The country is too big with too many cultures for any one story to encompass it. However, Steinbeck introduces us to characters (who may or may not have been composites) who feel genuine and who illuminate mid-century American worries. Each of us could  point to one, like the hairdresser or traveling salesmen, who made a lasting impression. Some of us thought Steinbeck gave himself too much credit for “discovering” the extent of pollution and  racism, but perhaps this was a useful window for his intended white, middle-class readers. 

One book club member called the book a snapshot and argued that it could have been even shorter. In fact, Steinbeck himself seems burned-out halfway through the trip, which we related to. It offered us both a way to travel while staying at home and brought up issues that are still relevant sixty years later. 

Books on Tap will meet again on January 7th via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org).  We’ll be reading In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which the library owns in multiple formats. Email Sarah Hamfeldt (shamfeldt at jmrl dot org) for help accessing these titles for curbside pickup or by download. 

More Information:
About the author
About the novel
Interview with the author’s son about Travels with Charley

Other Works Discussed
The Truth about Travels with Charley
Svetlana Aleksievich

Upcoming Meetings:
January 7: In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
February 4: Switched On by John Elder Robison
March : Red at the Bone by Jacquline Woodson
April :  Elevation by Stephen King