The How-To-Do Anything Guide
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; but teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. It's a nice thought, like a catchy pop song, and by the stunning proliferation of "How-To" guides, it's a very, very overplayed one. Google the phrase "how to" and you'll be inundated with nearly 1 billion matches.
For as long as people have been teaching other people how to do things, there have been "How-To" guides. Since the time of the cavemen ("How Kill Mammoth," "How Make Fire"), these celebrations of self-sufficiency have run the gamut of topics, from carpentry and social etiquette, to stock picking and six-pack abs.
Indeed, "do-it-yourself" is in our culture's very DNA. In the 1930s, How to Win Friends and Influence People became the manual for success in the business world. Two decades later, Marilyn Monroe starred in the film How to Marry a Millionaire; in the '60s, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" was the buzz of Broadway.
The trend isn't slowing. Visit a
Barnes & Nobleand you'll see a whole rack of standardized, laminated, fold-out "How-To" guides, courtesy of Quamut (owned by B&N), on everything from baseball to bond trading. Quamut's tag line: "The fastest, most convenient way to learn how to do almost anything." Wisdom's price: $6 per guide.
In Quamut land, every subject is given equal weight. Whether your life savings is riding on it or not, the guides are all the same length. (Then again, perhaps "disaster preparedness" and "getting a cat" are essentially the same--either way, it's good to have canned food around, and there may be damage to your furniture.) The guides are written in an anonymous, omniscient voice, giving them the sheen of authority.
But who are these experts really? And can they be trusted? Many of the guides don't bear an author's name; others tuck it in fine print on the back.
In the spirit of preserving the integrity of the educational process, we assembled some quick-and-dirty guides that aim to answer the top 10 most-searched "How To" queries in 2007 (according to Google), from how to kiss, to how to skateboard. (For information on the most-searched "What Is" and "Who Is" queries, check out Google Zeitgeist 2007. At No. 1: "What is love?"--To which we can only answer: "Baby, don't hurt me, no more.")
The ninth most popular how-to query on Google in 2007 was "how to levitate." The method here depends on whether you actually want to learn to levitate, or just want to learn to appear to levitate, in order to score with women hotter than you deserve, a la David Blaine. Basic physics dictates that the first method is impossible without the use of heavy pharmaceutical aids, which is not encouraged. To do it the David Blaine way, all you need is a bit of training in how to distract people while creating an illusion. It’s a bit more sophisticated than saying, “Hey! Look over there!," but not that much more.
At No. 8 was "how to flirt." First, lower your standards. If you're not actually attracted to the person you’re flirting with, then you can’t fail. Next, be charming. Talk about your Porsche, beachfront bungalow and diversified portfolio of investments that remains remarkably unscathed by the current credit crisis. Make mention, too, of other recent amorous conquests--it will get your target's competitive juices flowing. Finally, get all of this done before your beer buzz wears off.
No. 5: "How to dance." Step 1: Get your back up off the wall. Step 2: Get into the groove. Step 3: Prove your love to a significant other. Step 4: Hope that the person does indeed love you now that you can dance. (Disclaimer: You better really want to get down because, take it from Kool & The Gang, "How you gonna do it if you really don't wanna dance?")
Sticking with the art theme, the second most popular query was "how to draw." Easy enough. First, acquire some sort of marking device: pen, pencil, charcoal or gouging stick. Next, make lines and curves and dots and dashes on the surface of your choosing: paper, canvas, sandy beach, dirt floor of rustic cabin, skin of exceptionally trusting loved one. Then, stand back and admire--or loathe, depending on your perception of self-worth at the time--your work. (Note: Stick to abstract drawing. Comparing your own renderings to real-life objects such as a bowl of fruit or a nude model will only enrage you.)
Number one on the list was "how to kiss." Not surprising--the world's full of bad kissers. But there is only so much you can teach.
Christopher Varmus is a freelance writer and part-time “manny” who lives in Gowanus Heights, Brooklyn. He realized while writing this article that not knowing how to do anything does not--and maybe even shouldn't--preclude anyone from writing a how-to guide.