This was originally written for an old column of mine called “Technobabble.” I wrote it in 2002, and just happened to come find it and think, “Gee, I’ll bet people who read my blog love really old tech columns.” It’s surprisingly still relevant 13 years later — and it still intrigues me that publishing companies can make a business model out of insulting their customers. Call someone a “complete idiot” or a “dummy” in a bar and get punched in the face. Do it on the cover of a book and they’ll give you money.
I own a bookstore, so I encounter a lot of interesting books. As a professional (or is it “professed”?) geek, I’m familiar with the Dummies series, but yesterday a customer asked me to order her a copy of Heart Monitor Training for the Complete Idiot.
I panicked. Do we really want a complete idiot running a heart monitor? How would you feel if you checked into the cardiac ward and saw a copy of that book on somebody’s desk? Personally, I’d go screaming for the hills.
Of course, I soon realized that the book isn’t about the heart monitors you find in a hospital. It’s about those little exercise equipment attachments that clip on your finger. I got one on my treadmill. The instructions were two pages long. Somehow, someone managed to stretch them into a 212-page book.
For a long time, I’ve thought books like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to a Career in Computer Programming were probably aptly named. They’re probably required reading at a few computer companies I’ve encountered, too, but that’s another story.
Spend a couple of hours online, and you’ll know why there’s a book called Building a Web Site for Dummies. The books Professional Networking for Dummies and Network+ Certification for Dummies may explain the state of some of today’s computer networks, too. It certainly explains a few network administrators I’ve had the displeasure of working with.
I’ve developed a personal theory. I think these dummy books and complete idiot books are purchased by insecure smart people. Someone has a degree in nuclear physics, but they don’t know the difference between a rainbow trout and a crappie, so he figures he must be an absolute imbecile. Kaching! Another sale of Fishing for Dummies, though personally I’ve never liked fishing for dummies. They’re too hard to clean.
With some of these books, I think they’re simply a cruel prank. Take C# for Dummies, for example. In case you’re one of the 287,796,886 Americans not familiar with it, C# is the latest, hottest computer language, which Microsoft hopes will replace C++ and C (which, as we all know, replaced B — really!).
Imagine the dummy trying to ask for a copy of that book in a bookstore!
Dummy: Have you got a copy of See-Pound for Dummies?
Bookstore Dude: See what?
Dummy: Maybe it’s See-Hash for Dummies.
Bookstore Dude: That’s made with squid and seaweed, right?
That, you see, is the real reason that Microsoft hasn’t taken the world by storm with C#. Nobody knows how to pronounce it, except Microsoftians and programmers in the know. You, however, my loyal readers, are about to be let into the secret: It’s pronounced C-Sharp!
Back to books, though (we professional writers have to stay focused), where will this trend in books take us? It’s certainly a trend. My main distributor carries 837 books with “dummies” in the title and 496 books with “idiot.” My favorite is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to NASA. No comment required.
I think the total nincompoop series and the blatant imbecile series can’t be far behind. But what happens as we start to run out of terms? Personally, I expect some enterprising author to publish The Bumbling Ninny’s Guide to Synonyms for ‘Idiot’. It’s destined to be a bestseller.
I did not make up the names of the books in this column. There is also no truth to the rumor that my next book will be titled Writing for Sniveling Chowderheads.