Am I supposed to be inspired?

The Choice by Og Mandino, Bantam Books, 1984.

The Choice

For fiction, it’s too convenient; for an inspirational book, it’s too fantastic. The “choice” turned out to be more science fiction than realistic. A dead guy — another once-upon-a-time inspirational author — presents the main character with a choice: watch your son — a healthy little boy with no signs of sickness — die or take his place. Excuse me, but how many among us would ever be asked to make that choice? I read more than a hundred pages of a guy’s life only to find out that he’d be into a fashion dilemma later: a red tie or a less garish one? (The ghost tells him to wear a red tie if he chooses to take his son’s place.) This is supposed to be a “religion and inspiration” book, right, so did Mr. Mandino really think we’d hold our breath, fearing that his main character would say, “Ah, fuck it! Son or no son, a red tie is just too ostentatious for the occasion”?

The main character is Mark Christopher, a successful insurance company manager who leaves his productive professional life in order to spend more time with his wife and sons. He decides to be a writer, buys a late successful writer’s perfect house on a tight budget, (there’s got to be a conflict, of course) and completes a manuscript in no time, without sacrificing time with his family. Like all writers, he has to be rejected at least once, or it would have been all too easy, jumping from being a successful insurance guy to becoming a successful writer. He gets rejected by the major publishers and had to do odd jobs until a small publisher finally phones. (There’s nothing wrong with his work, of course. The major publishers are just idiots.) Christopher’s A Better Way to Live becomes a bestseller and he a celebrity. He gets confronted with the earlier mentioned “choice” when he is about to give a speech at the Yankee Stadium. Of course, all’s well that ends well as two ghosts — that of the inspirational book author and that of the former owner of Christopher’s house — intercede with God to let both father and son live. Deus ex machina. Definitely pulp fiction, not of the brilliant Quentin Tarantino type. Of perhaps, I’m just too cynical for religion and inspiration.

On a racial point, I note with indignation the following: “There was a near riot in Manila when my books cleared customs and went on sale in the many bookstores belonging to the two largest chains, Alemar’s and National Bookstore.” No one else had been presented as nearly unruly. The implied presentation of Filipinos as unsophisticated idiots who are predisposed to violence without the slightest provocation aggravates the effect of this inspirational book on me. Not even the much publicized and much awaited fifth book in the Harry Potter series met with such fervor as in the Philippines as Mr. Mandino would like us to think there was for Christopher’s book. (Perhaps there would be in a rally against then President Ferdinand Marcos, or when a few hundred pairs of shoes were being delivered to Imelda.) The Filipinos’ idea of a better way to live might be closer to eating street food on stick and drinking soft drinks than reading an inspirational book on a white guy’s concept of a better life. His bad life might even be some Filipino’s best life.

Although you have a choice, my recommendation is, if you’re Filipino and you read between the lines as much as I do, skip the first part of Chapter 11. (Wait a minute, I already quoted the offending line here.) Or whatever race and nationality you are, skip the book altogether, that is, unless you believe that any of the following is a satisfactory answer to a seemingly unanswerable question:

1. It’s a mystery.
2. It’s God’s little miracle.
3. You cannot presume to understand God’s ways.

As for me, I’m glad I got it for the bargain price of 15 pesos and did not have to join a near riot at National Bookstore. I’ll gladly give it away for free too — email me.

December 7, 2004

Note: No, don’t email me. I joined this group, Book Crossing, in which you read a book, make a review on their site (http://www.bookcrossing.com) and leave the book along with a message and the book’s website at a public place. Hopefully, someone will pick it up and go through the entire cycle ad infinitum. Well, it was an interesting concept at the start but I couldn’t bear to get rid of the better ones so I got rid of this book. And yes, that’s a much better the best way to live.

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