This reading group guide forThe Journal of Best Practicesincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with David and Kristen Finch. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Filled with humor and surprising insight, The Journal of Best Practices is David Finch’s personal and candid exploration of his quest to become a better husband—in spite of and aided by his Asperger syndrome. Faced with the failings of his marriage, David embarks on a ruthless self-improvement plan full of note-taking, spousal performance reviews, and a running journal of the ways in which he can be a better partner, a better father, and a better man. A unique and moving look into life on the autism spectrum, David’s is a story that shows it’s never too late to change, and that love—with the right amount of hard work—can conquer all.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “I was thirty years old and had been married five years when I learned that I have Asperger syndrome, a relatively mild form of autism.” Discuss this opening scene in which Kristen asks David a series of questions from an Asperger’s evaluation test. How does this passage establish their relationship?
2. Discuss the way David stayed on his “best behavior” in the beginning stages of his relationship with Kristen. Have you ever hid a certain personal preference, quirk, or eccentricity when first meeting someone? Did you ever feel comfortable enough to share this part of yourself ? What was the reaction?
3. David lists the four distinguishing characteristics of Asperger syndrome as “persistent, intense preoccupations; unusual rituals and behaviors; impaired social-reasoning abilities; and clinical-strength egocentricity.” In what ways does he embody these characteristics? To what extent has he learned to manage them by the memoir’s end?
4. Why are David’s “optimized personalities” so effective for business but fall short when he is at home with his family?
5. What constitutes a lack of empathy? How does David more successfully empathize with Kristen after starting his journal?
6. List and track David’s display of adaptability, or “going with the flow,” over the course of the memoir—from sharing living space with Delemont and Meredith to his weekend at the wedding in Charleston.
7. Do you think there is a general set of rules for maintaining a healthy relationship? In your response consider David’s admiration of Andy and Mary’s marriage, his notions of being a “flawless” husband, and his redefinition of the word perfect.
8. How would you describe David’s portrayal of Kristen in The Journal of Best Practices? How does she change over the course of the narrative? How would this account of their marriage differ if it were told from her perspective?
9. Did you think David’s application of employee performance reviews was a good idea? Would you perform such an experiment in your own relationship?
10. When writing about his tendency to overthink things and his desire to be more present for his children, David states: “In order to feel, one must suspend analysis and critical thinking. . . . You have to learn to hand yourself over to the moment.” Do you agree? Is the key to joy the exclusion of thought?
11. Why are routines so important to us? What are some of your own daily routines? Discuss David’s struggle with breaking rituals and consider how committed you are to your own.
12. Do you know anyone with an autism spectrum condition? How has your knowledge of autism spectrum conditions changed after reading The Journal of Best Practices?
13. Discuss David’s narrative voice. Was there a particular scene or description that stands out to you? What parts made you laugh?
14. Consider David’s moments of revelation, such as when he was watching SportsCenter and had the epiphany of “going with the flow.” Why were these specific analogies helpful to David? Did you see the logic in the way they related to his condition?
15. Do you think keeping a Journal of Best Practices would be useful for a “neurotypical”? Can you apply any of David’s Best Practices to your own life?
16. What inspired you or your book club to read The Journal of Best Practices? What are your overall thoughts about the book? What are you eager to discuss with your book club?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Try keeping your own Journal of Best Practices and document the ways in which you interact with others. Does writing down and being aware of how you communicate and react to others benefit your relationships? What are some of the Best Practices you discovered? Discuss what it was like to keep a journal, and share your Best Practices with your book club members.
2. Discuss the epigraph by Arthur Adamov: “The only thing to know is how to use your neuroses.” Reflect on your own personality. How can you channel your own neuroses or less-than-desirable personality traits for good?
3. If you’re brave enough, engage in a performance review with a spouse, significant other, family member, or even with one of your book club members. How do you score? Is it easy to be honest with those closest to you?
4. Consider reading Abby Sher’s Amen Amen Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things) or any book by A. J. Jacobs for your next book club selection. How do the memoirs compare? How similar are the authors’ approaches to self-improvement and realization?
5. Visit www.davidfinchwriter.com to watch interviews between David and Kristen, to read the He Said and She Said blog posts, and to request David to call in to your book club discussion. Or check him out on Facebook: www.facebook.com/davidfinchwriter.
A Conversation with David and Kristen Finch
Author David Finch and his wife, Kristen, sat down with some fans at Simon & Schuster’s offices in New York to discuss The Journal of Best Practices. Here is an excerpt of that conversation.
Q: David seems almost comically committed to self-improvement. Was this process about fixing him?
K: No, it was never about fixing him. Our relationship needed work, so that’s what we set out to fix. Although, it’s not inaccurate to say he was almost comically committed to self-improvement. Dave sometimes takes things to what many people would consider to be an extreme.
D: After we learned I have Asperger’s, my first thought was that if I could simply rid myself of the condition, then I’d be someone Kristen could love. But Kristen helped me to see that I wasn’t broken, that we had simply gained new insight into how I work. Still, I knew that we live in a neurotypical world—that I was married to someone from a different planet—and I was motivated to understand how I could function better in that world. Kristen was my very willing guide to her neurotypical world, and I was her guide to Aspergerland.
Q: So fixing your marriage wasn’t about overcoming Asperger’s?
D: No. I learned how to manage some of the deficits and leverage the strengths attendant with the condition—applying my hyper-focus to restoring our friendship and learning methods for going with the flow, for example—and that helped our relationship. But most of the things I needed to work on were things that every husband and wife have to work on: helping around the house, communicating, not putting empty milk cartons back in the fridge.
Q: What Best Practice offered the biggest breakthrough?
D: The biggest breakthrough is so hard to pin down; they were all so essential. I’d say going with the flow and tuning in to the world around me were high up there. Learning how to go with the flow and appreciating reality was what opened the door to a whole new world of joy and happiness for us. Our marriage is messy and chaotic and imperfect, and yet, it’s so perfect for us.
K: Those were huge, and I think using words was a biggie. Communication enables every other aspect of the relationship, and without it we would have remained stuck.
Q: Have all the Best Practices taken hold?
K: Oh, come on. Laundry?!
D: I do laundry all the—
K: Let me stop you right there. I want it to be known that the laundry chapter is completely fraudulent.
K: Nope. Fraud. Take it out, take out the whole chapter. Just yesterday I found you in there digging through the dryer for your cape, and don’t try to deny it. I have pictures.
D: Ehh . . . okay, some of the Best Practices did not stick.
Q: What’s this about a cape?
D: Let’s move on.
Q: Kristen, how did you not know that David had Asperger’s?
D: Because I’m dripping with normalcy.
K: That, and I never understood how challenging things were for you. Until we took the quiz, you’d never explained how much effort went into things I tend to take for granted, like socializing or just getting through a typical day with your sanity intact. Also, I wasn’t observing you through a diagnostic lens; I was just coming home from work and spending time with my husband. Slowly the condition revealed itself to us, one confusing situation at a time.
D: Yeah. The threshold of wackiness and drama and resentment tends to creep up on you when you’re married and it’s just one misunderstanding after another. Things heat slowly to a boil when you’re not communicating.
Q: David describes how playing characters has served him well throughout his life. Are there still moments when you see those characters?
K: Yes, I still see roles being played in social situations that require him to be “on.” I think it helps him to navigate interactions. Businessman made an appearance recently in Boston. We were trying to get seated in a crowded restaurant, and I saw Dave go from Happy Dave to Ruthless Businessman in a split second.
Q: Businessman showed up and took control? What happened?
K: We were seated right away; everyone else had to wait.