A couple of weeks ago, my eldest son Isaac got hold of our copy of How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk.
Now he keeps quoting it at me.
“No Mum, you need to acknowledge my feelings with a word or sound,” he says. Or, “Mum! You shouldn’t dismiss my wishes — you should give me in fantasy what you can’t give me in reality.”
He’s only twelve, so heaven help us when he actually becomes a teenager.
At the same time, I can relate to his interest, because at a similar age I read Libby Purves’s How Not to be a Perfect Mother with total fascination — and I’ve had a bit of an obsession with childcare books ever since.
My addiction reached its peak during my first pregnancy when, faced with the absurd idea of having another actual human being to look after, it seemed sensible to read as much as possible on how to go about it.
At one point I had 26 pregnancy and childcare books on my shelf.
Some of these were of the clinical, encyclopaedic variety where you could seek an explanation and solution for every minuscule symptom (your own or your baby’s). I therefore became convinced that I was going to have to endure an endless array of ailments and discomforts throughout my pregnancy, probably in alphabetical order, from anaemia, through hyperemesis and restless leg syndrome, to zinc deficiency.
Other books were written in the first person and were full of gallows humour, with eye-watering descriptions of the physical hardships mothers had to face. These were no more reassuring.
Once Isaac was born, my need for these “how to” books felt even greater. My parents came to stay and help for the first couple of weeks.
As we watched them leave, my husband said to me, “Don’t you think it’s weird that we’re allowed to look after the baby by ourselves, without any adult supervision?”
“Yes,” I replied feelingly. “I really do,” and went off to read What to Expect the First Year.
I’ve always had the (often erroneous) idea that you can solve or discover anything by reading a book about it. A quick scan at our bookshelves shows guides to digital photography and Italian verbs, what not to wear and how to look after your rabbit (don’t ask me why, because we’ve never owned a rabbit), programming in HTML and writing in shorthand (actually I realise I stole that one from my first boyfriend 25 years ago — I wonder if he wants it back). Best of all, we own a heavy Reader’s Digest hardback called How to do Just About Anything. This is worth picking up purely for the bewilderingly-diverse lists of topics running across the top of the pages:
Hair Setting — Hallmarks — Halloween Games — Hamburgers
Piano — Pickling — Picnics — Picture Frame Repairs
Oil Painting — Old People’s Homes — Ombudsmen — Omelettes
Times have changed, of course, and the internet is now a vastly more efficient way of finding out what you need to know.
At Limmud, I learned (from digital expert Philippa Gamse) the eye-opening fact that YouTube is the second most popular search engine in the world, after Google. And why? Because video is such a fantastic tool for learning how to do things.
It doesn’t suit me, though. I’m just too impatient. It often seems to be as much about the person making the video as what is being taught.
For example, I sometimes try to use it to learn a particular guitar technique. But by the time I’ve sat through an introduction in which a man with over-thought-out facial hair, looking desperately pleased with himself, says, “Hi guys, I’m Brad! I’m really pumped to be teaching you the basics of finger picking today!” I’m so irritated that I don’t feel like practising any more, anyway.
Although I search the internet for information many times a day, there’s a certain poetry lost in the efficient tapping of queries into a search engine, when you compare it to the triumphant tracking down of a dusty volume that will tell you exactly what you need to know.
When Isaac was still a small baby, we went on holiday in the south part of the Lake District. Popping into a local bookshop, we asked the owner, “Do you have any books that will show us where to go walking with an all-terrain pushchair?”
Silently, he handed us a volume called: All Terrain Pushchair Walks, South Lake District.
I don’t really believe that it’s possible to navigate your way through life by reading a series of how-to guides. But when occasionally I come across something so wonderfully specific, so absolutely perfect as that Lake District book, I get a warm, reassuring glow and pretend for a while that it is.