Burt Prelutsky / Nov. 8, 2010

How-to Books

It's my belief that in the entire history of the world nobody has ever learned to play a game by reading the enclosed instructions. I have, on occasion, tried reading up on games that I had already mastered -- and even then those confounded instructions made absolutely no sense to me.

It’s my belief that in the entire history of the world nobody has ever learned to play a game by reading the enclosed instructions. I have, on occasion, tried reading up on games that I had already mastered – and even then those confounded instructions made absolutely no sense to me.

How, then, you might wonder, does anyone ever learn a new game? It’s really quite simple. The person who invents it teaches it to friends and relatives. Each of them in turn teaches three or four others. Thus, passed along like a rumor, within a week or two everybody in the country knows the moves. Within three weeks there are tournaments being held in Las Vegas, some phony European count has declared himself world’s champion, and my cousin Rodney has learned how to cheat at it. And within a month, everybody is sick and tired of it and has gone back to Monopoly and gin rummy.

As unfathomable as those instruction manuals are, there are a steady stream of books coming out that, as examples of non compos mentis, are even more bewildering. These “how-to” tomes are, in their own way, manuals. But instead of backgammon or Parcheesi, the games they deal with are Success, Riches and Beauty.

The problem with all these books is that they’re based on presumptuous assumptions; namely, that the reader has the character, drive or raw human potential to convert himself from lead into gold. For instance, there are about 4,000 books on the market telling you how some dynamo made $10 billion in real estate in his spare time, and urging you to do likewise. Fat chance. I happen to know a few people who have made their bundles in that particular field, and the only thing they all have in common is that they’ve never read a book on the subject.

The majority of us drive around town heartsick because we didn’t buy this corner lot or that corner lot in 1976 for $2,500. What we tend to forget is that in ‘76, it wasn’t just luck or foresight we lacked – it was the down payment. Anybody not trying to sell you one of those books will tell you there’s only one foolproof way to make a fortune in real estate. That book would be titled “My Grandfather Died and Left Me Downtown Chicago.”

Furthermore, it seems to me that no book should be permitted to pass itself off as a shortcut to beauty. Unless it’s going to let you in on the secret of selecting your own chromosomes, no book is about to turn a mutt into an Irish setter. All such rip-offs should be called something along the lines of “How You Can Look a Tiny Bit Better Through a Regimen of Exhausting Exercises, Exasperating Diets, and Expensive Operations.”

Probably the worst thing about reading these books is that it keeps you from reading something worthwhile, something of substance, something that imparts knowledge to the brain and wisdom to the heart.

In the long run, after all, what we really need to discover is how to cope with a life in which success, riches and beauty, are so often along only for the short run.

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