Mel's Online Book Club: Born On A Blue Day
The choice of book for my real-time Readers' Group / Book Club was, on this occasion, prompted by a non-member whose young grandson has been diagnosed as autistic. Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet, is a remarkable book in many ways – not least because the author is severely autistic, has Aspergers Syndrome, yet has succeeded in writing his story without the aid of a ghost writer.
And as all the members of my Book Club agreed, it is a remarkable story. As might be expected, the style of writing is clear, concise and factual. Yet, despite the nature of the disorder – which is characterised by difficulties in social interaction, relationships, and reading body language – it is, we agreed, far from being devoid of emotion. From the loneliness identified by the author as a child, to his discovery of Dostoevsky's description of happiness, and his meeting with Kim Peek, whose life inspired the film, Rain Man, we each found aspects which were greatly moving.
Having begun with general discussion, we moved on, as usual, with the list of questions I had compiled.
Q1. Has reading about savants filled you with a sense of wonder about the complexity of Creation – and if so how?
Savants, despite the severity of their autism, often have astonishing areas of expertise. One Book Club member recalled Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man, where his ability to quote the events of any given date first brought the syndrome to the notice of the public. In Tammet's book, he learns the Icelandic language (which has no root in other languages) from scratch, within a week, and can quote Pi, sequentially, to 22,500 digits. Awesome!
Q2. Has your notion of 'normality' changed as a result of reading this book, and if so, why?
What is normal, we asked each other? And how much of what we accept as normal is learned behaviour, rather than genetic? Daniel Tammet has shown, in his book, that although his emotional responses may be absent and he finds difficulty in relationships, he has succeeded in learning how to respond to difficult and potentially stressful situations. He has flown, alone, to different parts of the world; allowed scientists to study his brain patterns; participated in demanding TV schedules, being filmed in front of a live audience, yet he has coped better than many of us would do. He has fallen in love, and he continues, to this day, to forge bonds in his relationships with his parents and siblings.
Q3. Do you think, as a result of reading this book, that the majority of us probably exist on half our brain power and waste our potential?
One Book Club member reminded us that we are constantly being told of the power of computers and internet technology yet - compared to the human brain - computers are barely off the starting block. Given that it has been suggested that savant skills may be latent in us all (but are deactivated by the brain's left hemisphere – especially in those who are right handed) we wondered if daily life impedes the full use of our brains. Might there be some truth, we wondered, in claims that activities like Transcendental Meditation could release the flow of potential?
Q4. Is there anything we can do to help our children, grandchildren, or the young people we come into contact with, to realise their gifts and broaden their perspective ?
In his book, Daniel Tammet wrote about his mental capacity to see numbers and words in colour, and in patterns that make up a 'landscape' in his mind. He suggested, for instance, that reading might be made easier for some children if different types of words – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs - were given a different size, shape or colour.
The discussion in the Readers' Group moved to education. It just happened that I had watched the Dimbleby Lecture on BBC2 the previous night, and the speaker, author and children's campaigner, Michael Morpurgo, talked, among other things, about our attitude to infant teachers. There is a tendency to devalue those who are involved in what, he maintained, is the most important developmental period of a child's life whilst, at the same time we elevate teachers of higher education.
One of the Book Club members spoke with passion about her daughter who is an infant school teacher and who is very enthusiastic about the new method of teaching, introduced in the UK quite recently. As it happened, I had been talking to my daughter – also, until recently, a teacher in an English school, but now living in USA, where old-style teaching by rote is still practised. One of my twin grandchildren, now six, having experienced a year in a British school, has not, to date, responded well to education in America.
The new style of teaching has similarities to a corporate method of motivating employees in industry, which I had come across on YouTube in the previous week. Here, the old concept of a carrot and stick approach has been replaced by a new paradigm - Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose – with far better results. I found this very exciting, given that it follows the pattern of Christian thinking, whereby we have all been given: free will; gifts (or talents); and the command: "love one another as I have loved you." Is this something that we could take further in the lives of our children, we wondered?
Q5. Were you surprised to find, near the end of the book, that Daniel considers himself a Christian and if so why?
All the members of my real-time Readers' Group expressed surprise that it was only on the last few pages of the book that the author revealed his faith. The only explanation we could give was that, being autistic, he seems to have articulated his story in a strictly chronological manner, and that coming to faith might have been a late development in his life.
Q.6 How does this affect you, given that the author is clearly a practising homosexual?
Interestingly, this question – initially met with a long silence – eventually produced a more impassioned response than any other. And not, as you might think, in any orthodox 'religious' way. Hypocrisy was uppermost in members' minds. But not the hypocrisy of the author or any other gay person. Rather, there was a sense of outrage that Christians should find it permissible – if not desirable - to ban homosexuals from worshipping the living God.
One spoke of the small church she and her husband attend in Spain, where they live for half the year. There, a young man – a practising homosexual – asked if he might come to church. He was given a hard time by one of the itinerant preachers, so attended only when he was absent. Given that Jesus consorted with tax-collectors – considered, in his day, to be the lowest of the low – this is patently wrong. I mentioned to the group that I had continued to be a secret smoker for some years after making a commitment and joining a church, and members agreed, that for many people conversion is only a beginning, and that old habits die hard. In truth, of course, conversion is only a beginning for all of us.
"How can we refuse homosexuals access to God and church when other worshippers – including myself – may be guilty of pride, or gossip, or any other sin?" asked one lady.
"And how can we justify turning a blind eye to heterosexuals who are living together, whilst denying homosexuals the same level of anonymity or compassion" asked another. "There are double standards at work."
Standards! Whilst agreeing that we should not grade wrongdoing in importance, we were of one mind when it came to standing by the principles or absolutes of Bible teaching. Marriage, for instance, is the joining together of a man and a woman. Positions of leadership in church should not be offered to those who are blatantly disobeying God's commands. And it seemed, to us all, that laws made by our governments in an attitude of compassion, seem only to open the way for them to be abused and misused. Does this make them wrong? Who knows? Perhaps Socrates was right when he said that Truth is known only to God.
Q.7 At the end of the book, the author writes of a perfect moment. What would you call a perfect moment in your life; can you share your experience?
Several Book Club members spoke of seeing starry nights whilst camping in the country, or in a boat at sea, where there is no light pollution. One spoke of shooting stars. For me, it was seeing the tiny, pink, shell-like finger nails of my first born; for another woman it was seeing her 1lb 11ozs baby and thinking her the most beautiful thing in the world – even though photographs later revealed her to be an ugly little thing.
One of the men in the group spoke of a moment of ecstasy in seeing the vibrant colours of the countryside from a train, enroute from York to Scarborough; another of a scene on the borders of Paraguay and Brazil. Perhaps the most poignant, however, came from a lady holidaying in Laos, where she found only joy among those living in abject poverty.
Isn't it this, in the end, that distinguishes a life well-lived? Like Daniel Tammet, we can rise above our suffering – whether it's autism, loneliness, or a sense of being different – and find joy in the small moments of recognition that we are part of something bigger.
Whether or not you have read the book, or were part of my real-time Book Club, please feel free to leave your comments at the bottom of this page. You may want to endorse something I've said; you may wish to disagree! Alternatively, you may want to draw something out of the book that I've omitted to mention. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.
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