Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Choice, by Og Mandino

I'd like to find out who donated the full set of Og Mandino's self-help books to the Malaysian Association for the Blind and throttle him.  I can at least be thankful that, of the seven or eight books in the stack, I've been assigned to record only three of them, and they are short books.  
Read this book, or give it a miss?
Return it to the shelf, and EXIT NOW.

I'm a bit squeamish about deriding self-help books, because it implies that I believe myself to need no improvement. This is far from the case, and I'm always delighted to read a book that inspires me to do something better. On the other hand, it's ludicrous to propose that all self-help books are of equal virtue and value. 

I was lukewarm on The Greatest Secret in the World, and my feelings for this book take another dip.  The Choice is a largely autobiographical novel with the addition of an angelic character (who may, for all I know, have been very real to Mandino).  

The narrator is an enormously successful insurance executive -- workaholic and affluent. His wife and two sons are uncomplaining and constantly supportive of his efforts. One Sunday morning, as he's about to go off for his weekly round of golf with his buddies, he looks at his sons and has a lightbulb moment that he's not spending enough time with them. He speaks with his wife about his concern and, as always, she lovingly vows to support him no matter what he decides. He resists the pleas and offers of his bosses at the insurance company and quits to pursue a career as a writer.  The bosses genuinely care about this man and his family and question his financial situation. Does he have enough in savings, for example, to carry them through a few years, while he tries to establish himself in his new career? No, he does not. Does he have any connections in the publishing industry who might give him a hand? No, not one.  He has determination that it's time to exit the rat-race, and that is the choice he makes.  

He sells their suburban home and buys a rural house in New Hampshire from the widow of a recently deceased writer.  The widow, enchanted with the narrator and his family, leaves her husband's old manual typewriter behind. Using this, our man sets about writing his very own self-help book, which he will title A Better Way to Live.  While he and his unflagging wife are submitting the manuscript to one publisher after another, their funds dwindle. She takes an axe to the household budget; he takes on part-time work at the sawmill and the filling station.  Poverty looms, but there is never a hint of disgruntlement in the household. Everyone fully supports Dad's choice.

Then a small publisher responds with such effusively gushing praise for the manuscript that one can't help but thinking of a newly-struck oil supply. Why, this is the finest self-help book the man has ever seen. When it hits the market, the sales break every record on the books.  Printers can't keep up with the demand; booksellers can't keep the thing in stock. Money flows into the author's account like water. Fan-mail arrives by the sackload, and the author and his wife are determined to reply to each and every adulatory letter.  They notice one letter which has been delivered to them despite its incomplete address and lack of a postage stamp.  Written in beautiful blue calligraphy, it's an ambiguous message, signed A. B. Salom.  They attribute it to a crackpot, but they are also a bit unsettled by it.  

As the story goes on, the messages from A. B. Salom appear here and there, always inexplicably delivered, and warn the author that he will have a choice to make in the near future.  The wife makes the connection between the signature and the Biblical story of Absalom, who battled with the choice of saving his own life vs. that of his son.  Eventually, the mysterious prophetic calligrapher appears to the author (though no one else can see him) and informs him that he, too, will be required to make a choice between his own life and that of his younger son.  He is to announce his decision by wearing a tie of a certain colour at the final speech of his national book tour.  He dons the red tie to signify that his son should be allowed to live and gives a speech that brings all the audience in Yankee Stadium to its feet as if Babe Ruth had just hit one out of the park, although he spoke extemporaneously and has no subsequent memory of what he said.  (I'll let you read the transcript of the speech and decide for yourself how impromptu it sounds.)  The angel makes one last appearance to announce that there has been an unprecedented decision from above to let both the author and the son live.  

I'm not sure what Mandino wanted readers to take away from this book.  Quit your day job and pursue your dreams?  This novel's narrator took a huge leap with inadequate preparation or fallback plan, and it strikes me as nearly miraculous that he succeeded.  If Mandino advises others to follow in this man's footsteps, that must surely qualify as malpractice in the self-help author's profession. (I would also point out that once his book was published, the author's life was every bit as frenetic as it had been as an insurance salesman; he had merely traded one rat-race for another.)  And what message are we to take from the ethereal calligrapher, A. B. Salom and the Choice that he presents? That we must be willing to sacrifice our own lives to preserve those of our children? What kind of a message is that?  

It may not be the advice of the angels, but if you need guidance on making sound, well-reasoned and healthy changes in your lifestyle, this book should not be your choice.  


  1. Too many self-help books help only one thing -- the author's bank balance. Top on my list of Books I Hate is Robert Kiyosaki's fictional-but-passed-off-as-autobiographical "Rich Dad, Poor Dad". All the self-help info I need to know, I gained from the Complete Works of William Shakespeare and The Greaseless Guide to Car Maintenance and Repair.

    1. After reading the 3rd of Og Mandino's books, I would put him in the category of those self-help authors whose priority is helping his own bank account. It went a long way toward helping me to get past my squeamishness about bashing self-help books, so maybe there was some value in it for me!


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