Silly Little Books

Like a candy bar, these can be finished in just a few bites, and have little nutritional value.

April 24, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun Staff

There's a book on noises you can make with your mouth.

There's a book on real-life lessons to be gleaned from reality TV, on instances of workplace stupidity, on how to transform small figurine heads of former presidents into coat hangers and table lamps. There's also The Book of Bunny Suicides, which illustrates the many ways a rabbit could kill itself.

And for those of you who have always yearned to see the story of Moses told exclusively with Lego building blocks, your prayers have been answered. The Brick Testament: The Ten Commandments promises "the story of Exodus as thou hath never seen it before," and it delivers.

America is awash in stupid books. You find them stacked next to cash registers in malls. They fit neatly in Christmas stockings or are given as gifts on their own. They are popular at office goodbye parties -- here, have some cake and this copy of Idiots at Work as a sign of our appreciation.

"Dustables," is what they are called by Barrie Rappaport, the chief analyst for Chicago-based Ipsos Book Trends, which monitors America's book-buying habits. "They just sit there and gather dust."

These books exist, in part, because computers have made book publishing so easy and so cheap. There are now about 81,000 publishing houses in the United States -- up from 37,000 15 years ago -- and the number of books being published has reached record heights. Last year, 185,000 books were published, but that doesn't mean they all should have been.

You don't read these books so much as scan them. You open to a random page, which will likely contain a "funny" quote or anecdote, and then turn to another random page. There is no organization or sequence. Some don't even bother with page numbers.

Executives of several publishing companies say they have come to the conclusion that this is what America wants. Short, allegedly clever, digestible. Dickens schmickens!

"Let me say something about your generation," Chris Schillig, the editorial director of Andews McMeel Publishing, says to this reporter, upon learning his age is south of 30. "Your generation is responsible for, or witnessing, the death of narrative. You guys read bites -- short bits of text, quotes that are two or three lines. These books capitalize on a trend in that direction in terms of readers' attention."

A recent report by National Endowment for the Arts lends credence to Schillig's argument. "Reading at Risk," released last summer, found that 42.8 percent of young Americans read a novel, short story, play or poem in the preceding year, down from 59.8 percent in 1982.

No one is suggesting that stupid books are displacing literary works. Electronic media -- the Internet, television, video games -- are doing a fine job of that on their own. These types of books, in fact, are more often found in card shops and gift stores than on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. They're not so much in competition with J.M. Coetzee as they are with Hallmark.

"These are greeting card replacements," Schillig says. "Think about the fact that a greeting card can cost $7. Why not buy a book?"

For starters, because so many of them are inane. Chances are any Hallmark card is better written than Idiots at Work, with its accounts of dumb drive-thru customers, dumber airline passengers and silly signs. It includes the following scintillating drive-thru encounter at a place called Mrs. Winner's:

Customer: How many pieces of chicken are in that 10-piece box?

Employee: There are 10 pieces of chicken in the 10-piece box.

Customer: Well, is there any white meat in that?

Employee: A 10-piece is normally one breast, two ribs, two wings, two thighs and three legs. It's half and half.

Customer: Well, how many pieces are there in the 15-piece box?

Assuming the exchange took place at all, what is it doing in a book? And what is the book doing in existence? Well, money is one reason. A small book can sometimes be a big hit. Take The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, which was published in 1999 with an initial run of 35,000. It has since sold more than 4 million copies.

Worst-Case shows that not everything has to be Important Literature, but it does have to be clever and entertaining. And that's the problem with so many of these little books. They're not funny. They're not interesting. They're empty. Many don't develop organically from the mind of an author. Often, a publishing house conducts a market study and determines: We need a book on reality TV! We need a book on the workplace! We need a book on knitting!

That's what happened to Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, author of At Knit's End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much. She submitted an idea for a book of essays about knitting, but Storey Publishing said it preferred a book of short knitting witticisms -- one per page. Each page starts with a quote, like this from H.L. Mencken: "Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood."

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