"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 October 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Stupid Like a Fox


[we've all heard of astrology of the month, and of the week, and of the day, but what about astrology of the moment? ]

"No one ever went broke

underestimating the intelligence

of the public," someone once

said, and when IDG Books gets

around to publishing Familiar

Quotations for Dummies, we'll be

able to tell you exactly who it

was. In the meantime, IDG has

delivered one of the decade's

most convincing proofs of the

premise, second only to the

ongoing phenomenon of human

whoopee cushion Jim Carrey: What

started in 1991 as a single

book, DOS for Dummies, has grown

into a US$120 million enterprise

with more than 350 titles

and more than 35

million copies in print.

According to the Dummies Web

site, "Dummies Technology Press

titles frequently represent

nearly 50 percent of the

bestsellers on Publisher's (sic)

Weekly Computer Bestseller



Even with the presence of the

two qualifying adverbs, that's

an impressive statement. In a

less ambitious era, such

dominance would have led to a

certain degree of complacence,

but in today's culture of

marketing manifest destiny,

there's always a few

white-collar expansionists ready

to push a successful niche

toward the more lucrative

territory of lifestyle brand.

Cable sports giants add

hamburgers to the corporate

menu; casual wear merchandisers

expand their repertoires to

include live entertainment; the

big brains behind the Dummies

facade have no less faith in the

elasticity of their brand.


[like, i am about to commit a crime.  i want to know right now - day,minute,second - what my cancerian luck is?!]

Three years ago, they realized

that the clueless cubicle serfs

buying their books weren't any

smarter away from their PCs; now

there are over 60 non-technical

Dummies books available, and

many more in production. Walk

into a Super Crown these days

and you see their reassuringly

amateurish covers on every rack

in the store; it feels as if

you're in some kind of nightmare

parody of what the publishing

industry has become: Cats for

Dummies, Golf for Dummies, Sex

for Dummies, Nutrition for

Dummies, Investing for Dummies,

ad infinidumb. There's also

Dummies audiobooks, Dummies

enhanced CDs, Dummies hats,

shirts, and mousepads. And for

people who don't get the

subtleties of Dilbert, Dummies

desk calendars. A theme

restaurant has yet to be

announced, but television shows

are under consideration. (Early

favorite for onscreen talent:

theoretical funnyman Bob Saget,

who boasts both a passing

resemblance to the Dummies

mascot and the middlebrow-beaten

obsequiousness the job would



Extending the original Dummies

line to general interest titles

is part of the grand tradition

of using technological vogues to

sell self-improvement: In the

1930s, for example,

"streamlining" was the

engineering imperative, and,

thus, the inevitable literary

consequence was Streamline Your

Mind, a tome that promised to

make your clunky, Model-T brain

run as smoothly as the sleek new

trains and automobiles that were

then in production. Today, of

course, the machine we aspire to

is the computer;

self-improvement books that

forsake Mandinoesque

parable-spinning for the

utilitarian gloss of user

manuals are the small penalty we

pay for that aspiration.


[sure, there is probably a web site out there that will do it for you, but how much could they know - really?]

The general interest Dummies

books began knocking

less-merchandised titles off the

shelves, in 1994. In a telling

coincidence, it was in that same

year that John Seabrook, via a New

Yorker profile, presented Bill

Gates to the mainstream audience

as something more than a Richie

Rich-Sherman Peabody hybrid. In

Seabrook's characterization,

Gates was the surprisingly

accessible shaper of the world's

future, a chatty abstraction

whose slightly ominous obsession

with "[using] time more

effectively" gave the piece its

cautionary undercurrent - sure,

the boyish billionaire was fun

to trade email with, but how

would he ultimately manifest his

efficiency jones? Well, not as

theatrically as one might have

hoped, but it's not only

Sidewalks that are paving the

way to consumer hell. Books like

Classical Music for Dummies

offer the ultimate homage to the

Gatesian ideal of maximum

productivity through

technoconsumerism - we are

ourselves computers, our

interests are applications, our

ultimate objective is to pursue

those applications with

multi-tasked efficiency.


Of course, the general interest

Dummies books embrace Gates'

ideal on only the most

superficial level: Except for

Howard Berg-friendly tables of

contents and icons that provide

efficient-looking marginalia,

the books are pretty much like

any other general interest title

on the market these days. That

is to say, no one's writing

overly complicated cat books or

truly baffling fishing bibles -

in the dumbed-down world of late

'90s publishing, where Martha

Stewart and John Gray are the

reigning illiterati, what books

are the "fun and easy" general

interest Dummies books supposed

to be an alternative to? There's

also the problem of the Dummies

label in its new context. When

approaching technical,

compulsory subjects, the mild

pejorative is actually a

value-add, helping slow learners

and underachievers preempt

expectations: "Yes, I know I get

paid $40,000 a year to know how

to type a letter in Word, but

don't expect too much of me, OK?

Because even with detailed

instructions in front of me, I'm

still a fucking dumbass." With

books like Gardening for

Dummies, which are purchased out

of personal interest rather than

professional obligation, such

preemptions shouldn't be

necessary. Who wants to pay $20

to declare they're lame at even

the hobbies they pursue to

refill the sense of self-worth

their tedious cubicle jobs drain



[and yes, there are 900 numbers to call. perhaps that is as close as we can get.  but wait!  how about yet another astrology on your key chain scam?  like those little digital pet thingys ... what are those anyway? ...]

Of course, brands are created

not to adhere to logic, but to

defy it, and, thus, it really

doesn't matter much that Dogs

for Dummies lacks the intrinsic

appeal of DOS for Dummies.

Indeed, it's probably best just

to get as much product as

possible out there while

consumer identification of the

brand remains strong. The Bible

for Dummies? A definite

bestseller. Diana for Dummies?

Sure, why not? In a bookstore

environment where "As Seen on

Oprah" and "Summer Movie

Tie-ins" sections are joining,

and sometimes replacing,

traditional sections like

"Fiction" and "Poetry," can an

entire chain of Books for

Dummies bookstores be far

behind? Hey, throw in some

coffee and bagels and a friendly

Bob Saget robot to greet

patrons, and start typing up the

press releases - we've got a

theme restaurant to announce.

courtesy of St. Huck

[Other Work By]
St. Huck
[Fresh Fish. If you clicked here, I might make more money. You love The Fish, admit it. Now click. Click, I say!]