Thursday, May 8, 2008

#120 - Idiot's Guide, Simplified

Idiot's Guide, Simplified

5/8/08 (#120)

I like shopping at Barnes and Noble. I prefer buying my books at locally-owned shops (for the purely selfish reason of wanting them to remain in business), but the chains stores cater to that romantic notion that one should be able to curl up with a book for a few pages and get to know it, make sure it's the right book for you. Thus, they furnish their warehouse-size spaces with overstuffed chairs and Mission-style tables that put my living room to shame, and offer an attached coffee bar staffed with lovely hipsters gyrating to user-friendly indie rock. My punk rock friends would likely consider this a form of shopping hell, but for me, Barnes and Noble is the opposite of shopping: I spend no money (except on caffeine), I escape from any retail flurry behind kiosks of Yoga how-to guides and topical political non-fiction tomes (doesn't "political non-fiction" sound like an oxymoron?) and for an hour or so, I read gorgeous, glossy magazines that I can't afford.

On my last visit, as I muled my latest stack of free-preview mags back to the rack, I was distracted by a rack of color-coded laminated pamphlets glistening in a stylish metal rack. Since I enjoy jolts of random information I stopped to investigate.

I have previously written on the ridiculousness of the so-called (and self-called) Idiot's Guides, and of how sales indicate that self-proclaimed idiots were a burgeoning demographic among the American populace. I had no intention of broaching the subject again, but those plastic-coated instructionals, a new product line from, claim to provide "how-to guides for absolutely everything." Everything. Best of all, every how-to guide is exactly six pages in length.

The six-page tutorial isn't a new concept: Several companies have issued these tri-fold glossy pamphlets as quick-reference tutorials for various software programs, offering users a chance to grasp the basic functions of a program without having to tackle the daunting 300-page user guide. I have several of these guides, mostly because I am an eternal optimist and when I received my pirated copy of (insert most of my software titles here) I thought it would be so much easier to learn via a few spill-proof pages than to purchase a full-on, requires-reading book that will discuss the infinite minutia offered by Photoshop, Illustrator, or whatever. Invariably, I have put those mini-manuals aside because these are complex softwares, and their possibilities are rarely unlocked by a seven-point bullet list of basic commands.

With the success of the software volumes (perhaps "volume" is inappropriate for a document smaller than the menu at a nice Thai restaurant), next came similar-sized documents intended to demystify similarly beguiling topics: Algebra, Geometry, Physics, and other mysterious concepts you might have missed in high school.

That this fold-and-go format should conjoin with the Idiot's guide topic comprehensiveness was an inevitability.

The how-to guides offered by quamut span a comically large array of topics, color-coded by the categories "House & home", "Hobbies & Liesure", "Money & business", "Computers & Tech" and "Mind & Body".

Of course, Barnes and Noble carried a stock intended to reach the broadest demographic, displaying a wide range of titles from each of the categories. The result was a hilarious juxtaposition of how-to handbooks---in one row, you could choose "stain removal", "Baking Cookies", "Beading" and "Pregnancy."

I am not a medical professional, but I am a parent, and I assure you that pregnancy is a topic that warrants more understanding than can be offered on a laminated placemat, even if the placemat is printed on both sides. And while I confess to have never delved deeply into the art of beading, I find it hard to believe that "beading" and "pregnancy" are two topics that require exactly the same amount of advance knowledge.

Jumping down one row, the topics included "Dog Breeds", "Baby Names", "Knots", and "Stock Trading." All fascinating topics, to be sure, and a simple tutorial on knots would surely prepare me to impress my Coast Guarder brother when he asks me to tie up the canoe and I knock out a half-hitch or a...well, I can't name drop any other fancy knots, so clearly, that how-to guide is for me. But learning to tie knots is considerably more hobbie-esque than floating the family savings on the stock market, and if one has intentions of doubling their retirement nest egg on the stock market, perhaps they should consider a more thorough education than that which can be obtained from a leaflet that contains fewer words than the user manual of a low-end VCR.

Lest I seem judgmental, the example of the knots belies the uncomfortable truth that I fall somewhere into their target demographic---I'm definitely one of those people who enjoys satisfying my curiosity about obscure and irrelevant topics, but I have no time for extensive research. For example, I wish I could identify breeds of cows, so that when I'm driving through back roads I could tell my daughter whether we're seeing Guernseys or Jerseys or Herefords; I wish I could identify more trees by their leaf pattern---I know maples, oaks, chestnuts and the other biggies, but the finer nuances of coniferous needles are a mystery to me. There are so many of these topics that metaphorically speaking, I feel like my intellect is more chinks than armor, and Quamut wants to help, $5.95 per repair. Of course, in my case, acquiring the knowledge isn't the issue: retention is my albatross. I've learned about knots several times in my life, and yet today I can barely tether the dog to a signpost.

Somehow, my capacity for information that offers no value outside of a game of Trivial Pursuit 80's Edition is endless (Bass player for Aerosmith? Got that. Songwriters for Cyndi Lauper's hit "Time after time? Got that. Names of television's Facts of Life ensemble? I even have room for that.) But information that I would like to have available, like birthdays, exotic cheeses I have purchased, eaten and loathed, and stories I've told so that I don't repeat them too often, keeping these bits in my mind is like trying to store smoke in a net.

So the concept, I like. What concerns me is the misconception that six pages is sufficient to cover any topic. (I hear people speak of the "dumbing down" of the nation, but no one mentions that this is largely a voluntary transformation.) A basic tutorial on dog breeds may well be contained within the confines of six pages (though I doubt the Leonberger gets a mention), but shouldn't we be investing more time into "planning your retirement" than a how-to that can be read on a three-zone train ride? Just as a career in graphic design requires more training than the perusal of a 6-page cheat-sheet designed to appeal to the average reader of USA Today, "Domestic Adoption" (one of Quamut's "House & Home" offerings) should require a more thorough investigation as well.

8 pages, at least.

©2008 wpreagan