Artificial Intelligence Self-help: "DOS for Dummies," a bright idea, has led to "Parenting for Dummies" and even "Sex for Dummies," cheat sheets for life. Some smart folks ask: Is this progress?

July 25, 1996|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Sticks and stones.

Can you take a little taunting? Are you willing to face up to the fact that the Internet is about as understandable to you as a Fellini film with Swahili subtitles?

More than 30 million people are, and the Dummies' books, which started as computer and technology guides, have proven it.

OK, now move from the mousepad and into your home, job, even your bedroom. Now are you as willing to own up to your inadequacies to the bookstore clerk?

"It's much more socially acceptable to say, 'I don't know anything about math or computers,' " said 42-year-old Reisterstown resident Kevin Doyle, while browsing at Borders in Towson. "But it's a little harder to admit, 'I have a 2-year-old and I don't know anything about him.' "

"Parenting for Dummies," "Wine for Dummies," and, yes, "Sex for Dummies," just to name a few, are now bombarding bookshelves as companions to "DOS for Dummies," "PC's for Dummies" and "The Internet for Dummies," etc., as easy-access, contemporary guides to life in the '90s. Unfortunately, "Heart Attacks for Dummies" hasn't made the cut, much to the dismay of Doyle, a cardiologist.

Really, it's only the cute packaging that's entirely new. Such instructional manuals come in more sensitive versions; Life's little Instructions, The Guide to Cultural Literacy, etiquette guides, sex manuals and the most innocuous of self-help books. But never before has it been such a concentrated, in-your-face assault.

Are they the ideal info-fix in a time when food is fast, gratification is instant and time is at a premium? Or are they a dumbed-down, easy way out -- indicative of a trend toward de-intellectualization?

Whatever the answer, dummies and idiots are proud to shout out their shortcomings in 30 languages worldwide.

Maybe dummy and idiot don't push your buttons, but what about meathead?

Macs for Meatheads is what one reluctant bookseller suggested John Kilcullen, the mastermind behind the Dummies series, label his Macintosh guide.

The reasoning?

Keep the alliteration.

In fact, many booksellers turned down Kilcullen in the beginning, because they were apprehensive about the titles.

But Kilcullen and the shrewd marketers at IDG Books Worldwide, of which Kilcullen is president and CEO, pressed on, and the idea that occurred to him in 1987 while playing with ideas over dinner has since ignited an international phenomenon. The first Dummies' book, "DOS for Dummies," appeared on bookshelves in November 1991. The Complete Idiot's Guides came later, and addressed varying and similar topics.

The titles, along with being a gimmick, are what Kilcullen, 37, calls a "term of endearment."

"The chord we're hitting, is people can laugh at themselves," he said. "People are proud to be dummies at certain things."

After all, this is a time of hyper-specialization and information overload, and such tongue-in-cheek titles are more likely to relieve than offend. "People don't want to be experts, they just want to be sane," he said.

And it takes a certain level of guts to plunk such a book down on the counter.

"The more secure people are in their career and their life, the more likely they are to buy these books," said Theresa Murtha, vice president and publisher of Macmillan consumer information group, which handles The Complete Idiot's Guides.

Consumers contend the titles are just a marketing mask for tips and advice that may not be as obvious as it seems.

Most people probably know you have to "be careful not to roll over on a baby or small child, or have big pillows and comforters that would smother them" ("Parenting for Dummies," page 133), but far fewer know that when a baby starts consuming more than 40 ounces of formula a day, they're ready for solid food.

Despite obvious information, the books can also be good self-starters and mind-refreshers.

Amanda Stanaway, 24, gave her friend "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dating" after the breakup of a long-term love affair.

"When she got out of the relationship, she didn't quite know how to hit the scene again," said Stanaway, a resident of Springfield, Ohio. "It was a comfort for her to have something like that."

Who said you have to be an idiot to buy a book for one?

"I have two college degrees, so obviously I'm not an idiot," said Deborah Hudson, 40, of Timonium.

Hudson believes "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting the Job You Want" helped her get the job of her dreams, as senior director for public relations for the Community Colleges of Baltimore County.

The authors are no dummies. They are all "experts" in their fields, whether they hold a degree in speech communications as well as having four sons, like "Parenting for Dummies" author Sandra Hardin Gookin, or are the Queen of Carnal Knowledge, like Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the author of "Sex for Dummies."

Culture for Cretins

Aside from scarce time and information inundation, why are people so turned on to this soundbite literature?

Think about it.

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