How To Do… Anything?

Regular readers of the blog will know: How-To Tuesdays are upon us. In this how-to season of yore, I thought I might learn a new skill by reading a library book. Just a nice, small project: read a book, learn a thing. Couldn’t be too hard, right?

Well. Searching “how to” in our catalog yields 3,724 nonfiction books for adults. That is SO many! If I’d had to guess the number of books hanging around in those nonfiction stacks, and I peruse them more days than not so one might consider my estimate valid, I would never have thought 3,724 of them independently featured a “how-to” title. Could they truly… possibly… represent 3,724 skills?

At a first glance, many of the titles seem to congregate in the 600s section -- gardening, cooking, household stuff, business, parenting, home construction, dyeing with plants, petcare, a real mishmash of subjects -- so, okay. I could believe that 3,724 distinct skills related to the above fields exist. And that our library has books on each of them. It seems possible (maybe).

And THEN, it turns out, when you’re browsing the “how to” titles in the catalog, it all very quickly turns abstract. “How to Hide An Empire.” How to Disappear.” “How to Read Churches.”

I love these very interesting and bizarre promises of realizing abstract skills via books, don’t get me wrong. But it complicates my project of learning one (1) rewarding yet relaxed skill to see “How to Have Impossible Conversations” -- impossible!! -- next to “How to Cocktail.” Can a book really teach me how to treat people? Or, why does a publisher want me to think a book can teach me how to do something difficult and complicated? In isolation from other people? Or new experiences? Hmmm.

But of course I trust books to be conveyors of new, mind-changing ideas. Most of the time. Just… why make it a how-to guide? When I search the dictionary for “how-to,” I see an emphasis on “practical” skills and advice: practical, as opposed to, like, philosophy and theory. Right? I expect steps in a how-to guide, something like five or ten pretty simple steps that will leave me with a finely carved spoon or a small woven placemat! As a persnickety GoodReads commenter once suggested, these co-opted terms do have original meanings. Whether those meanings matter or not, it’s worth wondering about the terms’ broader cultural use, and why publishers (the people usually titling things!) feel a “how-to” guide is more lucrative than, say, a “learn-about” book.

I’ll stop being pedantic now. You can find me figuring out How to Be A Good Creature and How to Build A Car in the next few weeks. Interested in taking on your own impractical project? Check out the list. And don't forget about How-To Tuesdays!

How To Do... Anything?

List created by LPL_HazlettH

Some "how-to" titles are straightforward: how to fix your bike, how to plant a garden. Others strain credulity! Can a book really teach me how to be a better friend, or how to save democracy? Only one way to find out...

View Full List

-Hazlett Henderson is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.