You can’t judge a book by its cover (unless you’re an idiot)

Let’s pretend you knew nothing about, say, how to make a G chord, and I said, “Well, idiot, let me show you”. I bet you’d be pissed. Calling someone an idiot or a dummy is not only politically incorrect, and not only incredibly rude, but it’s by definition inaccurate. (If you actually met the dictionary definition of “idiot”, you wouldn’t be struggling with a G chord, you’d be struggling with the letter G.)

But print that same insult in the title of a book and folks snap them up like they’re going out of style. (Sadly, I doubt they are.) Folks gleefully stand in line with titles like The Idiot’s Guide to Dating or AOL for Dummies (isn’t that redundant? Certainly reading a 384(!) page book on the topic is excessive, especially one that devotes more than one page to instruction on use of the “Send” button), unabashed about their derogatory self-references.

There are Idiot’s guides for most amazing topics: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to SubmarinesThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating (“Chapter 2: I have the trench coat, now what?”), The Complete Idiot’s Guide to being a Model (“Page 1: First, be ridiculously beautiful”), The Idiot’s Guide to Daytrading Like a Pro (“Sure, I have the house mortgage on the line, but I’s been studying!“), even The Complete Idiot’s Guide to American Government. (Which I assume is a primer on how to get elected.) The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Communicating with Spirits is ranked 51,328 in sales at Amazon.com; Amazon has over 1 million books. That places this particular Idiot’s Guide near the top 5% of Amazon sales. (But it’s still getting clobbered by the submarine guide, ranked 19,755.) (“Chapter 3: The important difference between ‘airtight’ and ‘water resistant’.”),

For a long time, the winner in my “Do idiots really need a guide for this?” contest was The Idiot’s guide to Poetry. Is there a giant market demographic aching for this knowledge? Sure, poetry can be a daunting subject for the uninitiated (include me in that outsider status), but as a rule, most folks who know nothing about poetry have chosen this path. I can understand a person who knows nothing about tiling floors buying “Tiling Floors for Dummies” because it can save them a lot of money and once they learn they can tile other floors in the house. But Poetry? Do idiot’s really want to know? (Apparently yes…sales rank 27,874.)

Yet the poetry book lost its status atop my list when I saw, The Idiot’s Guide to Living with Breast Cancer. (I am not making that up.) If ever there was a topic that you might want to tackle with something more than the lowest common denominator approach, wouldn’t cancer be it? Sheesh, aren’t there a few things in life that warrant actual research? Using an Idiot’s Guide to deal with cancer seems tantamount to taking a cross country trip and claiming, “We won’t get lost, I brought the globe.” (By the way, sales rank? 197,652, and all joking aside, I’m glad to see that the submarine sales are 10 times better. I’d like this book to become obsolete.)

But this past weekend, I found the holy grail of the idiot guides, the brass ring of the information merry-go-round, the perfect method for cloning the dumb gene:

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Homeschooling

Goodness gracious, talk about getting your kid off on the wrong foot! My hope was that page 1 stated, in large bold print, “Please, if you are reading this, stop. The local news is lying, your locals schools aren’t that bad!”, then on page 2, “Seriously, we printed this book as a joke, stop now.” But it wasn’t a joke. In fact, it was competition for market share with Homeschooling for Dummies.

I glanced over the table of contents: “Famous Homeschoolers, past and present.” (Hint: if you base your child’s home schooling on THIS book, you needn’t buy future editions to see if your child’s name has been added.) “What about Team Sports?” (No problem—as long as you consider chess to be a team sport.) “What if my son thinks his teacher is an idiot?” (Okay, I made that one up, but hey, look at the book title.) Sales Rank? 8,521. A veritable best-seller in the Idiot’s Guide realm. I’ve heard a lot of frightening statistics about the future of our nation’s youth, but this one concerns me most. (“I was homeschooled, just like Precedent Woodrow Roosevelt.”)

Now don’t get me wrong, these volumes surely have information that can help a reader gain some understanding of the subject matter. However, I fear that the average user sees these books as a one-stop reference, a sort of Cliffs Notes for every life situation. (“We wanted to help Janie with her dyslexia, but there was no Idiot’s Guide to Dyslexia to be found, so what could we do? We did find an Idiot’s Guide to Dsyliaxe, but that’s not what she has.”) If you want to pick up Labrador Retrievers for Dummies or Feng Shui for Dummies”, go ahead and enjoy the reading. But if you need surgery? C’mon—don’t be an idiot.

All sales statistics courtesy of Amazon.com, a bookstore quite inferior to Powells.com. Most references to actual book contents are embellishments. (duh.)

Sign-of-the-times addendum: sales rank for the Idiot’s Guide to Amazing Sex? 6,929. For the Idiot’s Guide to Romance? 483,090. (Insert your own punchline here.)

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