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HOW TO ...?

by Joan L. Cannon

Have you noticed the upswing in the numbers of books on how to live well, richly, generously, spiritually, fulfilled ... and on and on?

This genre seems different from instruction books such as those on how to decorate your home, repair your motorcycle without a mechanic, maintain a healthy back yard horse, and the like. It's great to be able to find manuals when you need them. In fact, I deplore this new age of technology that delivers the most sophisticated devices with nothing but (if you're lucky) color-coded connection diagrams. In fact, as one who used to read the instructions first, I'm frustrated by the fact that you have to get electronics working at least minimally before you can find out how to use them.

Of course, my husband's willingness to pay more than $30 for a paperback (!) that weighs four pounds and is two and half inches thick left me bemused. I have fortunately discovered that if one of these is properly indexed, it's possible to solve specific problems without a professional. But in my old age, I've become one of those computer users who stumbles along, resorting to written instructions (on paper, I mean) only when all else fails.

As for the how-to-live books, I understand their attraction for some people, given the parlous state of the world. Every "talking head" on television seems to be reiterating the need for confidence.

I notice one thing, though, when reading reviews of this type of book. (I have to confess a reluctance to read the books themselves.) Most that are written by what we like to think of as "ordinary" people (as opposed to clergy or gurus) appear to be intending their words as guides and handbooks to right behavior. We have to assume that is "right" for that author according to his or her experience and upbringing.

The motives are laudable, I grant, but in one case, since the author has white hair, one must assume that her daughters are no longer children. I have to wonder whether she's really a little too late.

When I was in graduate school, we had to write a paper on sex education in the public schools with emphases on morality and self-knowledge. At the time, my children were all in their teens, or just beyond. I tried to make the point that the schools can do a whole lot more with the teachers' obiter dicta, their unstated attitudes and implied directions than they could ever do in formal lessons. By the time adolescence is well underway or past, it's far too late to try to pass out instructions. The pupils will already have fallen into patterns, made choices (that they may or may not decide to change later), found their comfort zones.

My feeling about some of these instruction manuals intended to help people live with greater awareness and appreciation (as if each had already received a personal, finite time line) may be pretty ineffectual for nine readers out of ten.

Anyone who has reared children must see how difficult it can be to change the mindset of an adolescent. How much more difficult it must be to influence effectively even a willing reader. It just seems to me that it has to take a certain degree of hubris to assume you can tell a stranger those things that are coming clear to you now, presumably in mid-life or later. It must be a lot too late to instruct your children about them, let alone adults.

Those matters of ethics, loves, ambitions, attitudes have become set parts of young peoples' personalities. If their world view is askew, it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to straighten it out according to your lights by anything you might put in a book.

I certainly wouldn't want to put such ideas of mine out for the public because I wouldn't dare to presume to know what would be useful for strangers, and I know it's too late for my children, and not my place for my grandchildren.

I'd make a terrible missionary.

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