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Artificial Intelligence Self-help: "DOS for Dummies," a bright idea, has led to "Parenting for Dummies" and even "Sex for Dummies," cheat sheets for life. Some smart folks ask: Is this progress?

Sticks and stones.

Can you take a little taunting? Are you willing to face up to the fact that the Internet is about as understandable to you as a Fellini film with Swahili subtitles?

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More than 30 million people are, and the Dummies' books, which started as computer and technology guides, have proven it.

OK, now move from the mousepad and into your home, job, even your bedroom. Now are you as willing to own up to your inadequacies to the bookstore clerk?

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"It's much more socially acceptable to say, 'I don't know anything about math or computers,' " said 42-year-old Reisterstown resident Kevin Doyle, while browsing at Borders in Towson. "But it's a little harder to admit, 'I have a 2-year-old and I don't know anything about him.' "

"Parenting for Dummies," "Wine for Dummies," and, yes, "Sex for Dummies," just to name a few, are now bombarding bookshelves as companions to "DOS for Dummies," "PC's for Dummies" and "The Internet for Dummies," etc., as easy-access, contemporary guides to life in the '90s. Unfortunately, "Heart Attacks for Dummies" hasn't made the cut, much to the dismay of Doyle, a cardiologist.

Really, it's only the cute packaging that's entirely new. Such instructional manuals come in more sensitive versions; Life's little Instructions, The Guide to Cultural Literacy, etiquette guides, sex manuals and the most innocuous of self-help books. But never before has it been such a concentrated, in-your-face assault.

Are they the ideal info-fix in a time when food is fast, gratification is instant and time is at a premium? Or are they a dumbed-down, easy way out -- indicative of a trend toward de-intellectualization?

Whatever the answer, dummies and idiots are proud to shout out their shortcomings in 30 languages worldwide.

Maybe dummy and idiot don't push your buttons, but what about meathead?

Macs for Meatheads is what one reluctant bookseller suggested John Kilcullen, the mastermind behind the Dummies series, label his Macintosh guide.

The reasoning?

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Keep the alliteration.

In fact, many booksellers turned down Kilcullen in the beginning, because they were apprehensive about the titles.

But Kilcullen and the shrewd marketers at IDG Books Worldwide, of which Kilcullen is president and CEO, pressed on, and the idea that occurred to him in 1987 while playing with ideas over dinner has since ignited an international phenomenon. The first Dummies' book, "DOS for Dummies," appeared on bookshelves in November 1991. The Complete Idiot's Guides came later, and addressed varying and similar topics.

The titles, along with being a gimmick, are what Kilcullen, 37, calls a "term of endearment."

"The chord we're hitting, is people can laugh at themselves," he said. "People are proud to be dummies at certain things."

After all, this is a time of hyper-specialization and information overload, and such tongue-in-cheek titles are more likely to relieve than offend. "People don't want to be experts, they just want to be sane," he said.

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And it takes a certain level of guts to plunk such a book down on the counter.

"The more secure people are in their career and their life, the more likely they are to buy these books," said Theresa Murtha, vice president and publisher of Macmillan consumer information group, which handles The Complete Idiot's Guides.

Consumers contend the titles are just a marketing mask for tips and advice that may not be as obvious as it seems.

Most people probably know you have to "be careful not to roll over on a baby or small child, or have big pillows and comforters that would smother them" ("Parenting for Dummies," page 133), but far fewer know that when a baby starts consuming more than 40 ounces of formula a day, they're ready for solid food.

Despite obvious information, the books can also be good self-starters and mind-refreshers.

Amanda Stanaway, 24, gave her friend "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dating" after the breakup of a long-term love affair.

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"When she got out of the relationship, she didn't quite know how to hit the scene again," said Stanaway, a resident of Springfield, Ohio. "It was a comfort for her to have something like that."

Who said you have to be an idiot to buy a book for one?

"I have two college degrees, so obviously I'm not an idiot," said Deborah Hudson, 40, of Timonium.

Hudson believes "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting the Job You Want" helped her get the job of her dreams, as senior director for public relations for the Community Colleges of Baltimore County.

The authors are no dummies. They are all "experts" in their fields, whether they hold a degree in speech communications as well as having four sons, like "Parenting for Dummies" author Sandra Hardin Gookin, or are the Queen of Carnal Knowledge, like Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the author of "Sex for Dummies."

Culture for Cretins

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Aside from scarce time and information inundation, why are people so turned on to this soundbite literature?

Think about it.

Our heroes are idiots: Forrest Gump, Jim Carrey. Tim Allen, the ultimate helpless hipster, is a multimedia wonder (he could use "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Home Repair"). According to Dr. David Murray, a Ph.D. in anthropology and director of research at the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington, a kind of "dumb chic" has emerged. Take that, Dan Quayle.

Add to that declining SAT scores, the Bell Curve, drops in literacy and other depressing testimonials to our nation's mental malaise. Are these guides requisite reading for a no-effort generation?

"In a year when 'Dumb and Dumber' was a big hit, there's not a stigma attached to it," said Charles Sykes, a journalist specializing in education, and the author of the critically acclaimed "Dumbing Down Our Kids," "Profscam" and "A Nation of Victims." "I suppose you could call it an outbreak of national humility."

Sykes, who says these guides are to learning what the Thighmaster is to physical fitness, maintains that as long as they're used as educational supplements, no harm can be done.

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Murray is also wary of the "Cliff's Notes becoming the culture."

"These books should be the hors d'oeuvres," he said.

College textbooks have even become Dummies' guides of sorts, Murray said. The level of writing publishers will accept has declined steadily over the last 20 years. Murray attributes this partly to drops in SAT verbal scores as well as drops in consciousness of the subtlety and nuance of language.

Murray cites the "sell it to me, you've got 30 seconds to make a pitch" attention span problem. "You expect information to have a little sauce on it before you pay attention to it."

Dressing for Dunces

There's no Tolstoy tome on grooming, however.

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With the number of people out there who just can't surrender that Aqua Net, still think the Rick Springfield look is to be emulated, and think the art of the enema is appropriate dinnertime conversation, Dummies guides for grooming and behavior are definitely in order.

"Fitness for Dummies" beautifies the bod, but experts in the field of appearance and presentation have more to offer as far as the finer points go.

Style savant Elsa Klensch, fashion correspondent for CNN, and the author of "Style," has explored the computer guides and appreciated their straightforward approach. A Style for Dummies might provide the same sound advice for the fashion illiterate.

Some basics Klensch would be sure to include are: no shorts on fat legs and nix the sneakers at cocktail parties. However, she has her finger on the button of a dummy's biggest style flaw.

"Don't show your navel unless it's absolutely fantastic," she said. "I see the hip-hugging pants with the ugly navels sticking out walking up and down Fifth Avenue."

Etiquette guru Letitia Baldrige, author of "The Complete Guide to the New Manners for the 90s" and a variety of other books, would also include a few things about navel etiquette in Manners for Dummies, particularly in midriff-revealing bridal wear.

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"Who needs a navel in a wedding procession?" she said.

She also has a few more recommendations for being taken seriously.

"Able-bodied, physically beautiful people in their teens and 20s that take up handicapped spaces should be sent to Siberia," she said. "It shows a certain lack of humanity."

As for people who could really use a manners guide, Baldrige sees Roseanne and her entire TV family as prime candidates, as well as the whole Married With Children clan. "All they do is dis one another," she said.

Manners and the perfect outfit will get you nowhere without a crackerjack coif. Hair for Dummies would be the perfect antidote.

"People come in wanting the Princess Di look," said Martyn Duff, the North American East Coast creative director for Vidal Sassoon, who would definitely include realism as a hair tip. "It's not going to work, darling."

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Duff would also emphasize the dangers of piling on the chemicals, and warn against the perils of overteased, bouffant-based "mall hair."

"It seems as though those people wander around in packs," he said.

The Future for Philistines

Kilcullen said there will eventually be a Dummies' guide for every bookstore category. Religion for Dummies and topics in Music for Dummies are already in the works. A Complete Idiot's Guide on wedding planning is another book sure to win an appreciative audience.

Sure, we all need things spelled out for us from time to time, or a step-by-step plan to follow.

But not every problem encountered in life is that simply solved.

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The Cliff's Notes to life; about as seductive a thought as Pamela Anderson Lee in a leather bikini -- who, by the way, won't leave Tommy Lee just because you order her the right wine, know the working definition of an orgasm and change diapers with the speed of lightning.

If you think it's that easy, you really are a dummy.

Dummy Guides we could really use:

"Nudity for Dummies" by Demi Moore

"The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Royal Family" by Princess Di

"Divorce for Dummies" by Liz Taylor

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"Plastic Surgery for Dummies" by Michael Jackson

"Bigotry for Dummies" by Marge Schott

"Dummies for Jesus" by Jerry Falwell

"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Running for President" by Ross Perot

"Reincarnation for Dummies" by Shirley MacLaine

"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Having Bad Teeth and Getting Caught With a Prostitute but Still Being Adorable" by Hugh Grant

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"Cruising for Dummies" by Kathie Lee Gifford (or, "Dummies for Dummies")

"Angst for Dummies" by Dieter

Pub Date: 7/25/96


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