The Complete Idiot's Guide To Idiots
Self-improvement sans dignity

When did everybody become a complete idiot? The shelves of my neighborhood bookstore have been commandeered by the Complete Idiot's Guides to everything. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Being a Psychic Learning Italian, Geography, Elvis, Getting Rich, Getting Published, Divorce, Writing, Weddings, Etiquette, ...World History, ...Beer, ...Feng Shui.

See also...
... by Andrei Codrescu
... in the Scope section
... from September 7, 1999

There is no area of human endeavor left unploughed by the idiot's guides. There is even, God forbid, a Complete Idiot's Guide to the MCATs, the medical exams. Having an idiot doctor is one thing, an Idiot's-Guide-certified one, something else altogether. It hurts just to think about it.

The Idiot's Guides vie for shelf space with the books for Dummies: Law for Dummies, HTML for Dummies (I have that one!) -- the only difference as far as I can tell is that "dummy" is a gentler appellation than "idiot." "Idiot" used to be a fighting word, but not, it seems, when applied to oneself.

The fact that these books sell testifies, on the one hand, to a disarming earnestness in admitting that one is an idiot and, on the other hand, to the naive desire to know at least a little something about any one thing. Surely, no one can pretend to know everything about any given subject these days, but is knowing a little about everything preferable?

Our willingness to call ourselves "idiots" is both gently self-deprecating and the logical result of a long dilettante tradition in America that began with abridged editions of classics, Cliffs Notes, and Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Whole generations of college students muddled through school on the strength of these diluted simulacra. Once a subject of shame, these shortcuts are now a point of pride.

It isn't hard to imagine a private library composed entirely of Idiot's Guides. Friends come over and are enraptured: "All the Idiot's Guides. Wow! Can I borrow the Idiot's Guide to the Idiot's Guides?" The bookstores themselves are pretty much Idiot-ruled these days. Finding William Bennett in the "Classics" section makes no one blink, nor is one particularly startled to find the skimpy poetry section occupied by the verselets of Jewel or Suzanne Vega.

The Idiot's Guides may eventually rule the earth just like idiots have for a long time, but they have a ways to go. I see no Idiot's Guide to Self-Surgery. Missing, too, is the Idiot's Guide to Self-Lobotomy. I see no Idiot's Guide to Fellatio. There is no Idiot's Guide to Creationism, but maybe none is needed. But where, oh where is the Idiot's Guide to Embarrassment?

I am working on an Idiot's Guide to Myself. When I am done I should understand a little something about what makes me gag at such populist pablum. Am I an elitist or just a different kind of idiot?

Andrei Codrescu writes uncondensed books. His latest is A Bar in Brooklyn: Novellas & Short Stories from Black Sparrow Press