Saturday, September 27, 2008

Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins

Collins is the author of The Trouble With Tom (about the posthumous adventures of Tom Paine's corpse and thoughts) and of Sixpence House (about moving from the US to Hay-on-Wye), among others. And I think he's becoming one of my favorite contemporary non-fiction writers: he has a mania for research, an ear for carefully precise and true sentences, and a specific, particular perspective on all that he writes about.

Not Even Wrong is subtitled "Adventures in Autism," and it has two main strands: first is the realization of Collins and his wife Jennifer that their son Morgan is autistic, and of their struggles to understand what that means and what they can do about it. The other side of the book is Collins's reaction to that diagnosis, and it's a typical one for Collins: he dives into the literature of autism, from Peter the Wild Boy of eighteenth century Hanover to the frauds of Bruno Bettelheim to the experts of today. It's a shock to realize how young the study of the autism spectrum is: Asperger himself worked just before WWII (and his work was forgotten, or untranslated into English, for decades), and many of the major "early" researchers in English are still alive and active.

Collins is a thoughtful writer, good at digging up original sources and doing research on site as well as strong in synthesis and just plain putting words into a pleasing order. He's worth reading no matter what he's writing about, because the fact that he thinks this subject is worth his time is in itself a validation of the topic. I will admit to being doubly interested in this book, though: as I said when I read Sixpence House, Collins seems to be nearly exactly my age, and his first son Morgan is close to the age of my first son (whom I've been calling Thing 1 here). Morgan, as Collins learns in this book, is autistic. And my older son also falls somewhere on that spectrum, with something milder that's been variously diagnosed as Asperger's, ADHD, and the shrugging catch-all PDD-NOS. I'm not equating the two at all, but obviously I have a strong interest these days in stories of other parents dealing with difficult boys who live in their own worlds.

Not Even Wrong is not only a book for men like Collins and myself, for men trying to understand their sons. It's a book for anyone who wonders how we communicate with each other, how the brain works and doesn't work, and what we've learned. And Collins, who has a knack for digging up obscure historical information, is just the one to tell this story.

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