15 October 2001

"There is no sin except stupidity."
   - Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, The Critic as Artist

Oscar Wilde declared the above more than one hundred years ago, and we apparently still agree wholeheartedly with him. I offer you evidence. As of last week in the online catalog for our Public Library Network, which serves 62 area communities, there are 1,018 occurrences of "for Dummies" in the titles of books, sound recordings, and videotapes. There were also 937 occurrences of "for Beginners." I looked up "for Idiots," and found another 378 items.

Frankly, after looking through the output of my search, I came away feeling, well, insulted -- the implication in every title being that the reader needs hand-holding in some way or another, being a dummy, idiot, or beginner. There was a time, not so very long ago, when we apprenticed ourselves out to experts, in the hopes we would benefit from their coaching and mentoring as we learned from them. There was a gentleness to the relationship, with the expected outcome being a passing on of whatever little torch of knowledge there was to offer. No longer. The personal touch has been replaced by a book, and the gentleness has been replaced with a bold insult. If you read the book, then you are by your own definition a "dummy," a "beginner," or an "idiot."

I was also more than a little unnerved, thinking about all the experts at their work, happily cranking out tomes dedicated to casting aspersions on their readers' basic intelligence. The range of these books, every one of them a step-by-step guide for accomplishing something, is just astonishing. I can literally go from cradle to grave, every contingency of my life covered by one of the topics.

Granted, the bulk of the titles are about operating systems, computer applications, and networking programs. Interactive Data Group (IDG) jumped on the bandwagon in a big way several years ago, when it realized there was a lucrative and expanding aftermarket for instruction and user manuals that went beyond the system provider's often meager and inadequate efforts. Titles have been published for every conceivable program, application, configuration, and technique ever dreamed by anyone. 

You need to know how to assemble a personal computer? Simple, with "Building a PC for dummies," which is so popular, it's now in its second edition. If you're an Apple aficionado, you might want to have a look at "MAC OS X for dummies," new this year. The titles drill down to extraordinary levels of precision, too, detailing not only the system and the program or concept, but the version to which it applies. Witness "Framemaker 5.5.6 for dummies," "QuarkXPress 3.3 for dummies," and "HomeSite 4.5 for dummies." I admit, a few of the titles are frankly funny with unintended humor built in them -- "Ebay for dummies," "America Online for dummies" (in its 7th edition), and "Researching online for dummies." I read the last one, wondering why anybody would be interested in tracking down dummies online, when it's probably possible to walk down one's own street and have trouble not tripping over one. Draw your own conclusions.

Having spent most of my adult life trying to explain software operation to the world, I can accept that people who are intimidated by computer technology might have such low self-esteem they think routinely think of themselves as "dummies," when it comes to the computer. However, are they so conditioned to this mindset they must now think of themselves negatively in other areas of their lives, too?

Would you like to think the job applicant sitting opposite you was readied for the interview through studying "Resumes for dummies," and "Job Interviews for dummies?" Or that you've left your $30,000 automobile in the hands of somebody who's just finished reading "Auto Repair for dummies?" There were books about gardening, home improvement, health and fitness, sports, history, philosophy, science, education, pets, self-improvement, sex and love, travel, religion, and psychology. Pick a subject, any subject, and there's a guidebook waiting on the shelves to instruct you.

I expanded my search for ever more pejorative terms, such as dopes, dolts, dullards, nincompoops, ninnies, and nitwits. Mercifully, no records were retrieved. Yet.

I do miss the old days, but there's not much I can do to bring them back.

Excuse me. I have to get back to my reading. It's a thin volume, titled "Coaching and Mentoring for Dummies." Who knows, maybe I'll learn something.


No comments: