"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 19 April 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.



[Sean Landers]

Information, in lieu of ideas -

it's the unofficial motto of the

digital age, and most certainly

the rule of thumb by which

bookstore shelves are filled.

"Reference" is one of the

fastest growing categories in

book publishing, so why is it that

we still don't know any better?


[Life's Little Instruction Book]

In fact, reference books have

been around since books

themselves - some of the

earliest printed pages were

guides or compendiums. Called

"thesauruses" (from the Greek

for "treasure house"), these

meta-texts were, even then,

recognized as something of a


"The bookshops are full of     
Thesauruses...which, when     
examined, turned out to be far
less treasuries than fuel for 
the fire."                    

At least Johann Mencke (a

distant, but apparently

like-minded, ancestor of H.L.

Mencken) would have found a use

for tome-ettes like Life's

Little Instruction Book. In

these times of central heating,

we're no less swamped by fuel,

we simply lack places to burn

it. So our modern-day keys to

kitsch and cultural halftime

reports are tossed not onto the

hearth but upon the dung-heap -

or at least onto the back of the



[F Word]

The appeal of superficial

trend-surf reference guides (The

Spin Guide to Alternative Music)

and vaguely scandalous,

tittering histories (The F Word)

isn't their comprehensiveness,

but the fact that their

individual entries can be

consumed in one, er, sitting.

While at the moment few stores

are brazen enough to direct

interested readers to their

"Shithouse Shelf" or "John

Journals," we suspect that the

coming of olestra will give the

bathroom book market a

much-needed push.



Such a trend forecast, if it were

worth the paper Faith Popcorn

might print it on, would be

music to the ears of reference

hack Douglas Rushkoff, a man

who's made a living out of

literary regurgitation (The Gen

X Reader, Cyberia, and Media

Virus!). But in the metaphorical

maze Rushkoff pretends to map -

in several, agonizingly obvious

steps - there is one crucial

gap: the place of books like



[Media Virus]

If, as in one of Rushkoff's

parables, there exist media

viruses, media memes, and even

media syringes, then Media

Virus!, the book, and all the

pseudo-reference books like it,

are the symptom of a

culture-wide infection. Call it

Acquired Information Deficiency.

And the proliferation of these

manqué manuals is akin to the

growth of Kaposi's sarcoma lesions

on the body politic.


[Net Chick]

It's obvious that part of their

appeal - whether it's Net

Chick or Great Thoughts -

lies in their eschewing of

content intended to be "read."

But in being built to

skim, they can only provide a

low-fat diet: by compressing

information, history, and

criticism into stool-soft(ening)

bits, they can't help but gloss.

Reading one, in fact, can give

you the awkward feeling that you

know less about the subject than

you did before you cracked its



[Politics For Dummies]

In the case of the For Dummies

line, this reaction seems

entirely appropriate. But what,

then, explains the existence of

this wildly popular series?

While the utility of the line to

a certain segment of the

population is guaranteed, does

it do the rest of us more good

than harm to let the particular

market niche that For Dummies

represents in on the secrets of

"Politics," much less



[Generation X]

Not quite on the level of "Pop

Culture for Dummies," and

certainly a few steps above

Rushkoff's Nerf-crit is the

newly launched altculture.com. A

hypertext version of Steven

Daly and Nathaniel Wice's book

alt.culture, the site and the

book share with the reference

trend a tendency to take on the

trappings of authoritativeness.


[Practical Guide]

But where Rushkoff offers

footnotes to content in a quaint

throwback to "scholarship," Daly

and Wice boldly offer footnotes

as content, which is only

appropriate when the subject

matter itself is marginalia.

This retreat into the

formalities of scholarship could

be seen as a sign of our growing

need to verify the validity of

our popcultural knowledge. Who

hasn't experienced the queer and

uncomfortable intellectual

dyspepsia brought on by using an

idiot catchphrase, without being

able to pin as a source anyone

but yourself?



Then again, as any academic will

tell you, the purpose of

footnotes, bibliographies, and

the like is not so much to

verify, as to cover your ass. So

perhaps the motivation behind

these citation tropes is only

formal. With altculture.com,

footnoting the footnotes comes

down to putting in hypertext

links, links having already

been acknowledged as the Web

author's excuse to indulge in

obscurities. altculture.com's

intra-site hip-hopping is only

too representative of the genre -

constantly referring to

itself, where every "outside"

reference only takes you to yet

another entry.



Sites like altculture.com raise

the intriguing question of

mobility - savvy

database-heads would do well to

consider steering talk from

"set-top boxes" to "tank-top

monitors," so that we might

enjoy the content in its most

moving form. Still, issues of

portability aside, a potentially

infinite diet of social sops may

make it difficult to leave the

bathroom. And so we can rest

assured - whether or not content

is indeed king, it is the reader

who gets to sit on the throne.

courtesy of Ann O'Tate