There are really only two uses for what I'm gonna call "interactive" books. One use is to give to people as gifts. At Christmas time, shelves at Urban Outfitters and Borders fill with these somewhat useless wastes of paper and people lap them up to give to their slightly awkward best friend's boyfriend or to the cousin they see once every other year, and call it quits. Maybe they'll throw a box of creepy Santa chocolates in there. Done and done.
The other use for weird books like these is for people who have too much time on their hands and like to learn useless information. (Notice the word "useless" has come into both of these descriptions.) And by "learn useless information" I don't necessarily mean that the information is true, accurate or that there even is any information at all. I should perhaps substitute in the phrase "fill their brain with factoids, images and ideas."
That being said, a number of these interactive books have made their way across my desk in the last week or so. So here I offer you, dear reader, in two parts, a quick glance at six books (three in each part) that want you to do something with them, for better or for worse.
WTF? College: How to Survive 101 of Campus's Worst F*#!-ing Situations
By Gregory Bergman and Jodi Miller
Adams Media, 247 pages, $9.95
I've been to college. Okay, so it was the College of Santa Fe, so it wasn't your usual college experience, but it was a college nonetheless. There were a lot of weird situations I found myself in (like getting locked out of my second-floor dorm room and having to climb from my neighbor's ledge and into my window, using only an umbrella to keep from plunging to my certain death 16 feet below), but there was nothing that I really would have needed a book to help myself get through. Furthermore, oftentimes when I found myself in an odd position, I didn't have much time to sift through a little book to find the solution.
WTF? College outlines various options of what to do in situations like catching your roommate cross-dressing, your professor asking you out on a date in that creepy "let's discuss this project in greater detail" way, or having a bad trip at homecoming. Aside from the fact that these situations are pretty stupid and aren't often encountered IRL (that's cool college kid speak for "in real life"), the advice the authors give is lame as hell to boot.
The first option the authors suggest when your professor asks you on a date is to "bang the shit out of her." Yikes. That not only sounds graphic and violent, but most college students usually do speak English pretty well and would often appreciate some subtle nuance in these written suggestions.
Under the situation of having a paper due the next day and not having started it yet, the book first suggests that one "Sit down and write it." Okay, that's commendable. But option #2 is "Buy one." Ruh roh. Option #3 is "Steal one." Ruh-roh times two! Okay, I get that this book isn't a serious collection of sage advice on how to get through an institution of higher learning, but seriously? Seriously? The authors couldn't come up with something more interesting, like... "Go find that weird kid down the hall who notoriously talks in his sleep, transcribe everything he says, then turn it in and when your prof tries to fail you, berate him because he didn't appreciate your ‘art' about being chased by pine needle buttons and not knowing where the door hinges connect to"? No, instead they had to suggest you do something that will not only get you failed, but will get you kicked out of school and probably killed by the academic mafia. Way to go, book.
The usage of this book, by my decree: Gift for someone else. At $9.95, you can even pretend you thought about it when you're giving it to that recent high school grad, when in reality you were actually just like, "She goes to college, right? Here, this book says 'college' on it."
The Old Farmer's 2010 Almanac
By Robert B Thomas
Yankee Publishing, 256 pages, $5.99
Okay, so wait, Robert B Thomas actually died in 1846. WHAT IS GOING ON? This book was written by a ghost.
This book is perfect for anyone who wants to know all the deets about Nov. 5, 2010 (sun will rise at 7:39 am, set at 6:06 pm, it's the 309th day of the year and high tide's at 11 am in San Francisco), or perhaps someone who would like to know when the first fall frost in Lansing, Michigan is going to be (Oct. 3).
So not only was this book written by a ghost, it was written by a PSYCHIC ghost.
This ghost also knows precisely when to plant peppers – March 1 to 20. Whew! Not knowing that one really had me in a tizzy. Thanks, Psychic Bob Ghost.
The usage of this book, by my decree: Person who likes to fill their brain with factoids, images and ideas. Some of the knowledge in this book is legit (we're gonna have a cold winter, Desert Southwest), but some is a little less useful (how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich – that's page 196, all – or when and where to spread what sort of manure. You can find that page on your own).
Music Listology: Your Life in Playlists
By Lisa Nola
Chronicle Books, 160 pages, $16.95
First off, let me just say that Chronicle, by far, is the best company for useless paper products. They make the best little books, stationery, trinkets, things to spend extra money on when you don't have extra money and planners that make you feel like your empty schedule is okay since you have a pretty book in which to write nothing. But, I digress.
I probably would have killed for this book when I was 15. It's a simple concept - a book of lists. Each page has a header (List your top twenty favorite bands, List the best duets, List the songs that drive you crazy) and 20 blank lines just waiting for someone to fill them in.
Some of them are pretty generic - List bands you think shouldn't have broken up, List your favorite live albums - but some of them are more amusing and show that Lisa Nola perhaps put a little thought into the book's content (such as it is). "List songs you'd strip to," "List the music your parents listened to when you were a kid" and "List band names for your fictitious bands" are a few of my personal favorites of lists that would actually be pretty fun to compile. Granted, I don't necessarily know the names of all the operas my parents used to listen to (and it's not like I can Google the lyrics) and I think if I listed all my cool band names in one place, people would be MUCH more likely to steal the book from me and use all the band names to their advantage, but it's the thought that counts, Ms. Nola.
The usage of this book, by my decree: A gift for a person who likes to fill their brain with factoids, images and ideas. That's right, this book is a combination of BOTH types of useless interactive books. It's kind of like a Turbie. Last Christmas, I was given a Turbie. It's this thing that you can get on QVC that makes putting your hair up in a little towel turban about 100x easier. So I'm given this thing, and I'm like, "Wow, this was a waste of $5, but thanks." But you know what? I use that Turbie every freakin day.
That's what I can see happening with this book. You get it 'cause you're like, "Oh, look, so-and-so likes music. Let's get them this book." And you give them this book and you think you've done something innocuous and easy and harmless. But then that person sits down with this book on some lazy night where they don't have anything else to do and they start filling it out. They start flipping through their CD collection to complete the list about best album cover art. They start thinking about decisions they've had to make and what music helped them make them and they start filling out the list about advice they follow from song lyrics. They realize that if they're hit by a bus and someone finds this book in their cluttered bedroom, that they (the deceased) are covered because there's a list in there of songs they want played at their funeral. And before you know it the book's full and they think - "I can't believe I actually used that book. But now I'm glad I did."