A quarter of Americans read zero books per year. The Onion, as usual, put it best: “Print is Dead at 1803.” I know this is a blog. You’re reading it on a screen. And I like blogs, and websties, and Facebook. (Twitter, however, is too scary. Mean people.) I read articles and sites online every day, sometimes for hours. I teach online classes and collect and respond to student papers, even in face to face classes, electronically. But books are different, and special. People need to read more of them. Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity demonstrates precisely what a book, and no other form or medium, can still do.
What it’s about: children who are different from their parents. That, of course, would be all children, but a simple recitation of the chapter titles alone reveals something of the book’s scope and depth: Son, Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender, Father. The first and last chapters refer to Solomon’s personal experiences and bookend the other the chapters.
Of course, it takes nearly a thousand pages to cover the material. Solomon frames his discussion of seemingly disparate groups in two main ways. First, he talks about parents and children as having both “vertical” and “horizontal” identities. Parents default toward the vertical—that is, what is the same between parents and children, and what is passed down (the language itself suggesting verticality) directly from parent to child. Hearing parents, heterosexual parents, cis gender parents expect and assume their children will be the same as them. But often, children are radically different, instead having what Solomon calls horizontal identifies, therefore becoming part of a new, horizontal community outside of the biological family —the deaf community, the dwarf community, the disabled community. And sometimes, there is only the identity without the community: prodigies, children born of rape, children whose disabilities prevent them from any form of communication, who, unlike other groups, have not coalesced into an identifiable horizontal identity.
But even the idea of identity itself is complex, which brings Solomon to his other framework. Drawing upon his own experience as a gay man and the cultural trajectory homosexuality has taken during his lifetime, Solomon suggests that his subjects can each be understood as operating on a kind of spectrum. On the one end of the spectrum is illness, which requires intervention: homosexuality, and various kinds of disability, were believed to necessitate cures, treatment to establish the vertical identity of the parents. But on the other end of the spectrum is identity: a meaningful difference that is not perceived as undesirable, one not to be taken away, pitied, or, for that matter, admired. Where different syndromes and orientations fall on this spectrum, however, is subject to contentious debate.
Not surprisingly, the book is exhaustively researched and extensively documented: over 100 pages of notes alone, so it felt nutritious—I learned more on every page. But it is not just a synthesis of academic articles, or the more than three hundred interviews that Solomon conducted himself. The tensions between these ways of understanding children who are not like their parents—vertical/horizontal; illness/identity—inform each chapter, and my summary cannot do justice to the overall intelligence, nuance, morality, and warmth that comes through. It is a long book that easily moves back and forth between individual case studies—no, not case studies, people, since “case study” sounds more clinical than the human, and humane, portraits that emerge—and academic analyses spanning literature, psychology, history, and medicine, navigated and negotiated by an author who places himself, and his well-informed beliefs and ideas on the page. By the time I was done, I felt as though I had been through something, and gotten to know, and love, Andrew Solomon himself. I didn’t agree with everything I read, but I considered everything I read. Nonreaders are quick to create a false dichotomy between books and life, but they are wrong. The best books provide a deep, meaningful life experience for the reader. Books, like births, create horizontal communities and identities as well.
One of the few 1-star reviews on Amazon.com, for me, helps explain the book as well as one of the many 5-star reviews: “The author talks 2 much- and he is super boring and actually sounds like he just took a class in college and is repeating what the professor said- very disappointed.” This reader, unwilling to put in the time, retreats into the worst cliché, boredom. (The part about “repeating what the professor said” baffles me, though, as through Solomon somehow didn’t write it.) Reviews like this help me to understand the zero books per year number. A good book, unlike other popular forms of reading, to say nothing of other forms of entertainment, makes the reader work, but feel as though the work is worth it. Even if I did not work as hard as Solomon, who took over ten years to write Far From the Tree.
I don’t know how he finished it so quickly.
Time: 50 minutes, not counting reading the book.
In Comments, feel free to share a book that you felt to be a meaningful life experience. While Far From the Tree is of course nonfiction, any genre is fine.
 I’m not going to get into the electronic vs print book issue here, except to say that I still read books only in hard copy, and I can’t imagine having read this one on a screen.