Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Complete Idiot's Guide For Dummies

Riding the crowded N/R train this morning, I noticed that the lady beside me was engrossed in her copy of "The Complete IDIOT'S Guide To Weight Loss," which appeared to be over 200 pages long. ??? Surely, it wouldn't require two hundred pages to say

1) Eat less
2) Exercise more
3) Check out this handy food pyramid!
4) More water, less soda
5) Snackwells do not cause rapid weight loss

[Did the "Complete IDIOT's Guide" fitness plan involve lugging around a hefty tome in lieu of a flimsy pamphlet?]

I am fascinated with The "Complete Idiot's Guide" series, as well as the "[Insert Topic Here] For Dummies" series, as they appear to be a uniquely American phenomenon.

On jury duty I met a former stenographer from Miami who had a dog-eared copy of "Feng Shui For Dummies" in her clear plastic purse. She was really funny and we had bloody marys on our lunch break. I wish I had thought to ask her why she had chosen that particular book as her initiation into feng shui, in lieu of "Principles of Feng Shui?" "Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life: How to Use Feng Shui to get Love, Money, Respect and Happiness?" "A Master Course in Feng Shui?" "The Complete IDIOT's Guide to Feng Shui?" Would she have said, "Well, I'm no IDIOT, but "dummy"'s kind of cute!" evoking the same bashful aw-shucks naiveté women often affect in order to get guys to install their air-conditioners?

Why "For Dummies" and not "For Beginners?"

Because the increasing virulent anti-intellectualism in our country is propagating a culture of shame surrounding the desire to learn. In America, the literate ectomorph who loves French New Wave films is a de facto faggot: girls fear being rejected by the boy they like for being smarter. Obviously readers are out there longing to explore the subjects covered in the Complete Idiot's Guides to Understanding Islam/Knitting and Crocheting/Amazing Sex/Laborador Retrievers/The Arctic and Antarctica, and Texas Hold’Em -- why must they a priori demean themselves for their natural curiosity?

This series' very existence is a rueful collective apologia for the desire to learn. It's the same shame expressed in half the country's insistence that W's inability to speak a simple sentence was proof of his down-home honest humility, while Kerry was one of those "know-it-all" liberals. It's "Idiot Pride" -- Declare yourself an "idiot" from the get-go, and if you don't end up getting anywhere, why, shucks -- no one can fault you!

As an experiment, I went to and did a search for "idiot." It gave me two categories: "Books in English" followed by "Books." Under “books,” my top four options were:

L'idiot du village: fantaisie romanesque (The Village Idiot: A Romanesque Fantasy)
Dostoyevsky's The Idiot
L'idiot chinois (The Chinese Idiot)
Métamorphoses de l'idiot

"Books in English" yielded: "The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Texas Hold'Em."


Blogger Mika said...

I too have long been baffled by the success of these two series. Yes, I sure am an idiot! This is the book for me! And don't they all have the most moronic layouts, with all the cutesy icons in the margins and executive-summary lists of bullet points made in each chapter? Yes, I admit it. I've held my nose and bought three of them—Fishing (don't ask), 20-minute meals, and Organizing Your Life—things I really am a complete idiot about. Can't read 'em though. I mean, they are literally unreadable. I can't read bullet-points. I need sentences, discourse. So I'm no less of an idiot than when I started.

I totally agree with your claim about vile and exasperating American anti-intellectualism. But I'd be interested in learning what you have to say about its relation to totebaggery. Are anti-intellectualism and totebaggery just necessary opposite faces of the same American nickel? I imagine Leonard Lopate takes pride in not owning any Idiot's Guides for Dummies either.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Lillet Langtry said...

Yes! I do think they are expressions of the same kind of anxiety. "The Idiot's Guide To Monet" and the "Waterlilies" totebag are both essentially strategies of cutting the "unknown" off at the pass. "The Idiot's Guide" proclaims one's idiocy from the start: the "Waterlilies" totebag proudly proclaims to all that you ALREADY saw the show and now possess the experience as a discrete precipitate made available for purchase. Totebaggery is like that Elizabeth Bishop poem about Brazil, where the guys hack their way into the jungle.

Neither really fully allows for unmediated and private experience of something -- although at least the "Idiot's Guides," as icky as they are, are helping someone learn something. I mean, many of those "Idiot's" volumes are concerned with things that I think would be super cool to learn about -- just why do they have to be called that? Like, in France they have the "Que sais-je?" series of books [which for anyone ele reading this, translates as "What do I know about..." gardening, UFOs, banking...

Hey, but Lopate probably "knows everything of any importance already."

3:12 PM  
Blogger bonnie said...

about that last title - very intriguing.

Is there really a guide to Texas hold 'em designed especially for pocket-sized idiots?

Talk about limiting your marketing opportunities...

6:32 PM  
Blogger uscu2 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:17 PM  
Blogger uscu2 said...

Let me begin by saying somehow my post failed to register in paragraphs ... hence why I deleted it. Now moving on.

Maybe instead of being sexist you should take your thought process one step further. Don't just assume that girls want to hike up the skirt, giggle, and read "idiot" books and get guys to do stuff for them. Also don't automatically assume that people think learning is bad. The reason they buy the book is their desire to learn. If they wanted to remain dumb, they'd come home and play Xbox ... like I just did for roughly 2 hours.

Perhaps the reason they read "idiot" books and "dummy" guides are the quick simplicity of the book. Do you want to learn to paint your room in a crazy style without sifting through some 250 page, small font book that uses HUGE words pertaining to the craft or skill you're trying to learn? Heck no! You want to pick up a book and have someone explain it in simple easy to use words.

For example - Idiots Guide to Skiing instead of talking about the difference between all type of advanced skis says, "Buy simple skis and start here is what to look for ... don't forget to buy boots that fit the lock on your skis!" The book for fat people would say, "You know most diets are fads that use big words to suck you in. Just try a diet that caters to your eating patterns, if you like sweets, eat one or two, but moderation is key. You don't have to eat only lettuce." Your 5 point break down Lillet would make for a GREAT Idiots guide ... your almost on your way to stardom.

So before you paint in broad sexist liberal brush strokes (thinking that men are keeping women down and that people don't want to learn and need others to help them. I bet you think government needs to help more) think things through one more step, maybe people are simply trying to learn a little bit more about a lot of things. Boom in ya' face!

9:20 PM  
Blogger Lillet Langtry said...


I don't exactly know why I am bothering to rtespond to another of your complete MISREADINGS of our posts. THE WHOLE POINT IS WHAT IS IMPLIED BY THE USE OF "IDIOT" and "DUMMY", words with a particular valence and encoded set of values, rather than neutral words like "basic" , "beginner" etc. It's not the simplicity of the layout -- it's the slant implied by the choice of title.

That statement about air conditioner repair was NOT sexist -- it was meant to convey an affect of disengenuous helplessness.

You and your friend are a great advertisement for the sorry state of literacy in this country. You just don't understand tone or subtlety.


11:53 AM  
Blogger uscu2 said...

You my friend Lillet are a perfect example of the elitist left in our country. You think that you understand everything so much better and more clearly than everyone else. Since you use the occasional big word that you get from your thesaurus, you think it makes your opinion more credible or literate.

Not so Lillet not so. I understand your point exactly. There is not a slant in society against learning at all. Most people love to learn. Way to try and belittle me and say I misunderstood your article. Maybe your article was rubbage and poorly written ... I think I may be onto something here. Wam bam thank you maam!

1:36 PM  
Blogger Lillet Langtry said...

Dude you rock. Thanks for proving my point EXACTLY.

We aren't elitists at all. We both come from really poor families and were the first people to go to college.

If you bothered to actually pay attention to what we write here, as opposed to looking for "keywords" to take out of context, you would be able to understand what we actually have to say.

2:21 PM  
Blogger uscu2 said...

Nice try Lillet ... nice try. You act elitist I didn't say you were royalty. You act elitist by thinking you're better than everyone else.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Trey Desolay said...

Mika, I think your question about the relation between American anti-intellectualism and totebaggery is an important one.

For the moment I want just to point out that Leonard Lopate does indeed take pride in owning at least one Idiot's Guide for Dummies.

7:13 PM  
Blogger bonnie said...

note for uscu2 -

I don't think Lillet's being sexist at all. Realistic is more like it. I know we'd all really like to believe we're living in a post-feminist post-civil rights nirvana.

Lillet - Maureen Dowd - totebagger or no? Just curious. I read her column religiously & love it but sometimes she can be awfully self-righteous. But she had a really good one a couple of months ago about how hard it is for a succesful, intelligent career woman to date. Seems their male peers all want to marry their assistants in the end.

Me? I'm not going into a LOT of personal detail here but I'm just remembering a time when my cute, petite first roommate in NYC told me that I would never catch a man if I didn't let him feel good by occasionally playing helpless asking him to get something down from the top shelf or open a jar.

I'm tall & quite strong & not willing to play those games. Guess what? She's married with 2 kids. I haven't had a date in years.

Lillet's not being sexist. Not all women are like that - any more than all men are pigs - but there are plenty who are.

'Scuse me now, I need to go tell some African-Americans how marvellously colorblind our society has become...


12:31 AM  
Blogger Lillet Langtry said...

Uscu2 -- I don't think I'm smarter than everyone -- just you.

You say in your comment: "Also don't automatically assume that people think learning is bad. The reason they buy the book is their desire to learn."

But you clearly didn't read what I wrote, which was: "Obviously readers are out there longing to explore the subjects covered in the Complete Idiot's Guides ".

10:53 AM  
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WOW! How fantastic! Thanks Mr. S!

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