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An Article for Morons

I spend a fair amount of time in the computer sections of bookstores these days, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. The trendy titles all insult the reader. There’s a whole slew of Books for Dummies, and there are almost as many of another line called something like the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Whatever. These books obviously sell well, since publishers don’t continue to release books in a line if the line sells badly, and in fact, I presume that many of the books are quite good despite the fact that they seem to target an audience of simpletons. David Pogue, author of "Macs for Dummies," qualifies as a talented and technically-savvy writer and I love his "Macworld Macintosh Secrets" book, which never implies its readers are blockheads.

But the titles make me cringe inside. I suspect these books sell because they feed the low self-esteem of the readers, and misery loves not only company, but confirmation. Implying the reader is a half-wit may make money, but is it a good thing? For the publisher sure, but for the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of readers, most of whom certainly aren’t numskulls? Not a chance. It’s a bit like putting a big sign on the wall above your computer saying "Have I mentioned how abysmally imbecilic I am today?" That’s what a line of these titles on a bookshelf says to me, and I suspect that it may speak similarly to others. I can’t imagine it would be a good thing to have your boss, for instance, subscribing an opinion of you based on your collection of Books for Boneheads.

I don’t know the details of how my car’s engine works either, but I don’t fret over that or go looking for a book called "Cars for Cretins." There’s no shame in consulting a manual or a book (although I’d argue that if the programmers couldn’t write it well enough that you can use most features without consulting the manual, they should be ashamed). Consulting a book is like talking to a teacher, but few teachers start conversations with, "You’re an idiot, what do you want to know?"

Why don’t we see books whose titles, as General Magic’s design axiom states, "do nothing to lower the self-esteem of the user?" A friend suggested "I’m OK, Click OK" or "Conversations with Your Mac’s Inner Child." I’m being flip, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with clearly targeting a book toward novices without insulting them.

The rationale behind these titles is that the programs make the user feel like a dumbbell, and although that may be true, I don’t buy it as a justification. I’d argue that the titles should focus on the program, not the user, as in "Beating GinsuWrite 6.0 Into Submission" or "Dominating DTPMaker."

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