How to…

time lifeIt dates back to the 1960s and a Time Life series of ‘how to’ books which became wildly popular – how to unclog a drain, hammer a nail, fix a squeaky door hinge, install a garbage disposal, build a deck. And we bought them all. The How-To craze had begun and we were all for it.

Soon ‘how to’ became self-help and do-it-yourself merged with challenges, campaigns and that e-mail spam which promises everything from a firmer butt to millions from an African royal official (if we share our bank information).

There are tens of thousands of books with ‘How to’ in the title. Many are still concerned with good, old fashioned repairs like repairing a Briggs and Stratton engine, but most are about how to do more ordinary, everyday things like live better, accomplish more, sleep sounder or organize everything.

Today we call ‘how to’ the promised land of a #lifehack.

We’re not talking about becoming experts in life, maybe on life and that’s what’s become of us. What we’re all after is sensible enough. It’s where we all get to eventually, some later than others but everyone eventually…we’re all trying to survive life. ‘How-to’ stuff isn’t much about electric current or refrigeration repair. It is more about reconfiguring spaces, reclaiming your days, weekends, weeks and thereby reclaiming yourself. And the best part is that it doesn’t matter if what you wind up with doesn’t even come close to a certain plan, a received design or perceived goal. The activity itself is open-ended and prohibits failure (the only failure is not to have tried at all). If schools without failure are simply those institutions of baby-sitting we used to call colleges and universities, then ‘how-to’ and ‘for dummies’ literature is for a life without failure where the only disappointment is going through life without trying to be your real self (whatever the hell that may be).

How-to books used to be called novels and reading narratives was how most people learned how they might live, how to avoid ruin and peril and despair, how they might survive hard times with nobility and virtue intact, how to do well and how to do better. When narratives and fictions were done poorly they generalized and moralized as directly and bluntly as a step-by-step guide to multiple male orgasms. History books are no better with their god-like noble-izing about why everything happened the way it did (Monday morning quarterbacking and 20/20 hindsight never enjoyed as great an academic justification as history classes). Even history must give way to genealogy; just as poor novels must yield to healthy (and sometimes hard to follow) narratives. In our present climate of reading it has become too hard, too difficult, to novelize and narrate one’s life or to learn from someone else’s life because a story doesn’t prepare a plan for us. If the motto of how-to-ing is measure twice, cut once, then the moral of (good) novels is keep measuring, cut often, and try measuring once just for the thrill of it once-in-a-while. The suspicion from how-to-ers is, of course, that narratives keep measuring and never get to the cutting.

To Be Read S L O W L Y

Don’t you hate
being told how to
read, how to enjoy,
how to be you; it’s like
being told how to
breathe or piss,
both as necessary
and both problematic
eventually, so do
try not to hate
being told to do
the things we will
forget one day soon.

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