Saturday, May 12, 2018

To Siri With Love by Judith Newman

Rating: WARTY!

I was unaware of how controversial a book this had been in the autistic spectrum community when I saw it in a bookstore and learned that it was also at my local library. I am glad I didn't buy it not because of what the spectrum community is railing against, but because the book is bait and switch and I do not appreciate book blurbs which outright lie to draw-in potential readers. I know that's a blurb's job, but usually a blurb bears some vague relationship to the book it represents. This one didn't.

The blurb begins with the following two paragraphs:

It began when Judith Newman's thirteen-year-old autistic son noticed that there was someone who not only would find information on his various obsessions (trains, planes, escalators, and anything related to the weather) but also would actually semi-discuss them with him tirelessly. Her name was Siri and she lived in his mother's iPhone.
Newman's story of her son and his bond with Siri is an unusual tribute to technology. While many worry that our electronic gadgets are dumbing us down, she reveals how they can give voice to others, including children with autism...

This is an outright lie. I came at this hoping to learn more about a fascinating technology, particularly if it's one that can really help people who most need that help. The problem is that there is one chapter and one chapter only on the relationship with Siri. This chapter begins on page 131 of a book which, not counting the introduction (I never read introductions), runs to 216 pages, and it ends ten pages later. That's it. I quit reading the book when I realized that the next chapter was on a different topic and those scant ten pages appeared to be the entirety of the Siri/"electronic gadgets" discussion.

I'm sorry, but if you're going to try to sell (in the broad sense) a book that not only features this topic prominently but also titles the book after that topic, I actually expect to find that topic throughout the book, fool that I am. You lie about it like this book did, you get a 'warty' rating on my blog. The problem for me was that as I went through chapter after chapter with nary a word about the Siri and Gus 'relationship' I began to tire of the endless rambling and I began to skip and skim, dipping into a section here and there that was of interest, until when I actually did reach the section that discussed what the whole book was supposed to be about, it was far too little, and far too late.

While I cannot for the life of me understand why any parent would want to name a child 'Gus', I can understand why a mom would want to ramble on and on about her child. I think some of the harshest criticism was as rambling as this book though, with the authors of it continuing to shoot arrow after angry arrow into a threadbare target. They simply didn't get the author's sense of humor, but that's not to say their criticism was unfounded.

I think reasonable people can agree to disagree on those details so I'm not going to get into that here except to comment briefly that I think that some readers, in particular those who think the author doesn't think Gus has emotions or thinks Gus doesn't think, have flown off the handle at a throw-away comment the author made without realizing it was a 'first impression' kind of a comment that she later actually did throw-away as she and Gus matured together in their relationship and in her education.

Those critics seem to be forgetting that the author began telling this story chronologically when she was completely in the dark about Gus's status for some time after he was born, and got no help in understanding what was going on from anyone, least of all from the very community, some members of which are so virulently criticizing her now! And yes, criticizing her, not the book!

That said, I have to allow that if the very person the book's author praises highly in this book mounts a campaign against the book, then clearly something is fundamentally wrong somewhere, but the way to fix that is to reach out, not to punch out. I think what disturbed me most of all is that autism is a spectrum and not a narrow rut, yet all of the negative reviews were talking as though there is only one kind of autistic person who has only one kind of perception and feeling, which is nonsense, so I think some of the negative perspectives were a little blinkered to say the least.

Regardless of what other failings it may or may not have, this book failed for me because it quite simply did not remotely deliver on what it promised, period, and so I cannot recommend it. There are books which the autism spectrum community recommends. I recommend reading one of those instead.