Give me a guide book and I’ll try my best at life

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - @su­san­reuben

ACOUPLE OF weeks ago, my el­dest son Isaac got hold of our copy of How to Talk So Teens Will Lis­ten & Lis­ten So Teens Will Talk. Now he keeps quot­ing it at me. “No Mum, you need to ac­knowl­edge my feel­ings with a word or sound,” he says. Or, “Mum! You shouldn’t dis­miss my wishes — you should give me in fan­tasy what you can’t give me in re­al­ity.”

He’s only twelve, so heaven help us when he ac­tu­ally be­comes a teenager.

At the same time, I can re­late to his in­ter­est, be­cause at a sim­i­lar age I read Libby Purves’s How Not to be a Per­fect Mother with to­tal fas­ci­na­tion — and I’ve had a bit of an ob­ses­sion with child­care books ever since.

My addiction reached its peak dur­ing my first preg­nancy when, faced with the ab­surd idea of hav­ing an­other ac­tual hu­man be­ing to look af­ter, it seemed sen­si­ble to read as much as pos­si­ble on how to go about it.

At one point I had 26 preg­nancy and child­care books on my shelf.

Some of these were of the clin­i­cal, en­cy­clopaedic va­ri­ety where you could seek an ex­pla­na­tion and so­lu­tion for ev­ery mi­nus­cule symp­tom (your own or your baby’s). I there­fore be­came con­vinced that I was go­ing to have to en­dure an end­less ar­ray of ail­ments and dis­com­forts through­out my preg­nancy, prob­a­bly in alphabetical or­der, from anaemia, through hy­per­eme­sis and rest­less leg syn­drome, to zinc de­fi­ciency.

Other books were writ­ten in the first per­son and were full of gal­lows hu­mour, with eye-wa­ter­ing de­scrip­tions of the phys­i­cal hard­ships mothers had to face. These were no more re­as­sur­ing.

Once Isaac was born, my need for these “how to” books felt even greater. My par­ents came to stay and help for the first cou­ple of weeks.

As we watched them leave, my hus­band said to me, “Don’t you think it’s weird that we’re al­lowed to look af­ter the baby by our­selves, with­out any adult su­per­vi­sion?”

“Yes,” I replied feel­ingly. “I re­ally do,” and went off to read What to Ex­pect the First Year.

I’ve al­ways had the (of­ten er­ro­neous) idea that you can solve or dis­cover any­thing by read­ing a book about it. A quick scan at our book­shelves shows guides to dig­i­tal photography and Ital­ian verbs, what not to wear and how to look af­ter your rab­bit (don’t ask me why, be­cause we’ve never owned a rab­bit), pro­gram­ming in HTML and writ­ing in short­hand (ac­tu­ally I re­alise I stole that one from my first boyfriend 25 years ago — I won­der if he wants it back). Best of all, we own a heavy Reader’s Di­gest hard­back called How to do Just About Any­thing. This is worth pick­ing up purely for the be­wil­der­ingly-di­verse lists of top­ics run­ning across the top of the pages:

Hair Set­ting — Hall­marks — Hal­loween Games — Ham­burg­ers

Pi­ano — Pick­ling — Pic­nics — Pic­ture Frame Re­pairs

Oil Paint­ing — Old Peo­ple’s Homes — Om­buds­men — Omelettes

Times have changed, of course, and the in­ter­net is now a vastly more ef­fi­cient way of find­ing out what you need to know.

At Lim­mud, I learned (from dig­i­tal ex­pert Philippa Gamse) the eye-open­ing fact that YouTube is the sec­ond most pop­u­lar search en­gine in the world, af­ter Google. And why? Be­cause video is such a fan­tas­tic tool for learn­ing how to do things.

It doesn’t suit me, though. I’m just too im­pa­tient. It of­ten seems to be as much about the per­son mak­ing the video as what is be­ing taught.

For ex­am­ple, I some­times try to use it to learn a par­tic­u­lar gui­tar tech­nique. But by the time I’ve sat through an in­tro­duc­tion in which a man with over-thoughtout fa­cial hair, look­ing des­per­ately pleased with him­self, says, “Hi guys, I’m Brad! I’m re­ally pumped to be teach­ing you the ba­sics of fin­ger pick­ing to­day!” I’m so ir­ri­tated that I don’t feel like prac­tis­ing any more, any­way.

Al­though I search the in­ter­net for in­for­ma­tion many times a day, there’s a cer­tain po­etry lost in the ef­fi­cient tap­ping of queries into a search en­gine, when you com­pare it to the tri­umphant track­ing down of a dusty vol­ume that will tell you ex­actly what you need to know.

When Isaac was still a small baby, we went on hol­i­day in the south part of the Lake Dis­trict. Pop­ping into a lo­cal book­shop, we asked the owner, “Do you have any books that will show us where to go walk­ing with an all-ter­rain pushchair?”

Silently, he handed us a vol­ume called: All Ter­rain Pushchair Walks, South Lake Dis­trict.

I don’t re­ally be­lieve that it’s pos­si­ble to nav­i­gate your way through life by read­ing a se­ries of how-to guides. But when oc­ca­sion­ally I come across some­thing so won­der­fully spe­cific, so ab­so­lutely per­fect as that Lake Dis­trict book, I get a warm, re­as­sur­ing glow and pre­tend for a while that it is.

I pre­fer dusty tomes to watch­ing YouTube videos

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