June in the library: The Correct Thing!

Submitted by Richard McKay ~ 

People have been telling off slobs for ages, but they had to wait until the 1500s for the first book to help them do it, Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (BJ 1604 C37).  A library of any pretentions at all can be counted on to have at least one of Courtier’s descendants on its shelves; let’s try our luck.  South campus librarians Larry Gainor and Lynda de los Santos combed our groaning shelves for books that tell nice people like us how to be even nicer.

 As Larry opens his book bag I notice Meghan Doherty’s How Not to Be a Dick: An Everyday Etiquette Guide (BJ 1843 D6).  Dick walks the perplexed millennial through a variety of situations that could easily turn into trouble.  I opened straight to “In the Bathroom,” and good for me, too.  Spoiler alert: Guys are supposed to lift the seat, and I know that her advice about washing my hands before leaving will stand me in good stead someday.  Ms. Doherty covers a broad range of chancy social interactions, including how to make friends at school, how to be a good roommate, how to…  Oh brother.  I think I’m going to be a dick and skip straight to Larry’s next selection.

 Popular: A Memoir: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (BF 575 S39 W34) is the record of teenager Maya Van Wagenen’s valiant experiment in personal growth: For an entire school year, she would follow precisely the beauty/health/popularity advice of a 1951 self-help manual for girls.  Ms. Van Wagenen’s writing is simple and forthright.  She has a good ear for dialog, a gently self-deprecating sense of humor, and a circus vet’s dose of nerve.  I’m not ruining the story for you by blurting out that she finally wins acceptance from the Cool Kids.  Her etiquette mojo seems to have worked for her, but then she was probably a good kid to begin with.

Larry also found this fascinating study, Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620-1860 (BJ 1853 H46).  Not to imply that the country’s manners went to blazes in 1861, but judging from a quick flip through the book, they were probably a dicey affair before then, too.  If, as we read in chapter 3, manners maketh man, they may just as easily unmaketh him, and in a rigidly vertical social hierarchy, falling from grace for an error of deportment must have been a constant worry in some quarters.  The scholarly text shouldn’t scare a reasonably literate reader with a taste for period folderol.  No pix, darn it; a few halftones of guys in tricorner hats deferring politely to each other would have livened things a bit.

Anyway, my problemo with etiquette books is that the people in the direst need of them are probably unconscious of this, and so I think are unlikely to ever see them.  Also, wouldn’t people terminally flummoxed by what might be expected of them in an unusual social occasion be best served by sending their regrets?

Let’s try to have fun with this.  Here to help is P.J. O’Rourke, who offers Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People (PN 6231 E8 O76), another of Lynda’s selections.  Having already read this far down the page, you may be tired of hearing our betters tell us how to behave ourselves, and so is Mr. O’Rourke, who offers not one bit of actionable advice.  Here he is, on thank-you notes: “If you are in any condition to write a thank-you note the next day, it wasn’t a real party.”  He adds inspirational quotes at the head of each chapter.  For the chapter titled “Going Out,” we have a quote from the movie The Wild One: “We don’t go anywhere.  Going somewhere is for squares.”  Full marks to Mr. O’Rourke for citing “square” in its correct derogatory sense.  Had Ms. Doherty used it instead of “dick” I might have read past the restroom advisories.

For those of us who prefer their advice to be career-focused, Lynda gives us Lynn Peril’s (what a great name) Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office (HD 8039 S58 P47).  Ms. Peril is short on grooming advice for the cubicle farm, but she’s got a lot to say about the demeaning nature of the work and social position assigned to the almost exclusively female office staff at any time you’d care to pick in the last century, including right now.

The maxim “give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” is grounded in religious instruction, but might apply to etiquette as well.  Lynda’s next choice is the helpful kiddie book Monster Knows Table Manners (BJ 2041 M5525 [Juvenile Collection]), differing from each of our other selections in that it may be the most likely of the bunch to be used by someone at once needing its advice and also standing to profit from it, although he or she is certainly not likely to be reading and understanding it without adult help.  Its twenty pages are heavy cardboard stock, and covered with the sort of bullet-proof glossy plastic film that argues for its use during a small child’s snack time.

I don’t suppose Lynda had to look hard to find the 1984 edition of the classic Emily Post’s Etiquette: A Guide to Modern Manners (BJ 1853 P6), which you might keep within lunging distance of your bedside should you ever find yourself out of Ambien.  Approached in the right frame of mind it can be amusing, instructive, soporific… Your pick.  You should have no problem finding an older copy in good condition in a used book store.  No review of any edition of Etiquette can be complete without respectful acknowledgment of Dorothy Parker’s 1927 New Yorker review “Mrs. Post Enlarges on Etiquette,” right here for your cold-blooded amusement, because I know you like that sort of thing.

The Department of Antiquities:  The attached picture, taken facing due east at the corner of parking lot 6, dates to the early ‘80s.  The wealth of attractive greenery that now adorns the campus hides the stark geometry of even our smaller buildings; that’s the gym, to the left.  I’ve said this before about the library, and I’ll say it about the gym, that it would not be out of place in the Valley of the Kings.  Cover the facade with incised hieroglyphics and our students wouldn’t even have to leave campus to be exposed to exotic art and architecture.

Until next month, mind your p’s and q’s, and don’t be a square.

Kindest summer regards,