How to. . .for Dummies?

I’m really disturbed by the apparent current belief among many that everything worth doing can be “taught” via a how-to book. This has become so prevalent that if you type “How to. . .” into the Amazon.com search window you actually get 381,110 hits.

Granted, some of these are movies (How to Train Your Dragon; How to Marry a Millionaire), and the first one listed gave me pause (Decency prevents me; click here if you must know.) But if you narrow the selection to Books only there are still 300,776. If you limit it to “. . .for Dummies” it cuts this list all the way down to 10,667. Seriously. Ten thousand, six hundred, and sixty seven “How to . . . for Dummies” titles.

First of all, (and maybe this is just me,) I’m not really all that interested in reading something that has been written by someone who is operating under the assumption that I’m a moron. This cannot be a good experience. Condescension is one thing when delivered by a male colleague, your physician, or your children. It’s something else entirely when you’ve paid for it.

I think what disturbs me most of all is the unsuitability of some of these topics to a How-To manual. Psychology for Dummies, Anatomy and Physiology for Dummies, Sex for Dummies. Yikes. Like it’s a good idea to have random, relatively uneducated strangers analyzing the emotional reasons for the items you’ve placed in your grocery cart, or setting your ankle after a bad fall. The third one is the most disturbing — if you’re both dummies, maybe you just shouldn’t; think of the children!

Many of the topics result in interesting if not downright unfortunate implications: Catholicism for Dummies (is this a different form of Catholicism than the one available to smart people?); Chemistry for Dummies (boom!!!); Twitter for Dummies (seriously? isn’t that the point of twitter? how hard is it really? I mean, if a bird can do it. . .)

Have we forgotten that some of these topics — psychology, medicine, investing and finance (okay, maybe this one not so much), literature — used to be considered worthy of many years of advanced study and hard work? I’ve spent 40 years getting good at playing the piano, through individualized study with qualified, gifted, inspiring teachers and thousands of hours of practice. Are they actually implying that I could have learned everything I need to know from a manual? (Okay, I know they’re not implying that exactly, but what are they implying? And I haven’t even touched on the importance of human interaction in the learning process.)

Richard Bausch writes in the latest Fiction edition of The Atlantic about his experience with the editors of a set of dozens of fiction how-to books. This article includes the description of the result of his eventual agreement, not to write a fiction how-to book, but to write a chapter on the Craft of writing. His closing paragraph of this chapter extols the reader, ergo assumed-to-be-aspiring writer, not to follow step-by-step instructions from a manual, but to read. A lot.  That in order to write, massive quantities of good literature must be read, digested, even imitated. Most of this paragraph is surreptitiously cut by the editors, leaving a vague, relatively meaningless paean and no useful information. When it is admitted that the editors are concerned that the author’s “instructions” will result in the drop in sales of their myriad books, and the author is unwilling to omit the paragraph, the entire chapter is dropped from the book.

Everybody wants the short cut. Children: few chores, ample allowance, easy teachers. College students: the best grade with the least possible work, the job that allows them to stay out late on weekends and sleep in. Even adults aren’t above this — after the easy money (lotto, stocks that hit it big and which no one else knew about); the easy job (flex-time, high salary, company car, expense account).

But some things require time. And work. And effort.

And sometimes, it’s the time, and work, and effort, which make it worth it at all.

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