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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
It may be a sign of our love of progress or it may be proof of our desperation. Either way, there's no doubt that one type of book outsells all others — the often embarrassing, always available books that The New York Times categorizes as "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous."
In our culture, millions of readers seek answers in the pages of Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul and The Rules: TIme-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. These books are as popular as they are ephemeral. Concerns about Prozac are soon overwhelmed by interest in Viagra; Reviving Ophelia has been replaced by Real Boys.
In How to Do It, Rudolph M. Bell brings us back to 16th-century Renaissance Italy, a time when high culture and scientific innovation thrived, and advice manuals were as popular in households as they are today. Acting as a lively and amusing guide, Bell leads us through manuals that offer advice on conception, pregnancy, childbirth, child rearing, adolescence, marriage, and widowhood. The suggestions for "good living" range from the ribald to the ridiculous.
Not surprisingly, many of the "health" tips are arcane, if not extraordinarily odd, as well as hilarious. Sterile? Take the testicles off a chicken and serve them up in some chicken soup. Trying to conceive a male heir? Tie a string around the right testicle. Wondering why farmworkers have healthier sons than the rich do? It is, of course, because the wealthy gorge themselves and have sex at night, while the exhausted laborer eats a meager meal and is too tired foreveningromance. His morning lovemaking is more productive as "his semen is strong and dry; he is refreshed and alert."
Sex is a constant theme in these manuals; and the middle-class domestic focus was clearly a guise for more prurient concerns. The respectable books allowed readers to bypass the teachings of the Catholic Church while seeking information on sex. While many of the populist lessons were moralistic ("Too much sex shortens the life span"), Italians also enjoyed celebrations of lust. The popular "I Modi" ("The Ways") introduced readers to 16 techniques for achieving new heights of lovemaking pleasure. After the Pope banned this bestseller, a new and improved edition appeared "containing many words and ideas that would receive an instant NC-17 rating in our own culture."
Bell believes that the proliferation of how-to books allowed for an alternative information network to emerge, one that wasn't controlled by the Catholic Church or established media. Like the Internet today, this populist, inexpensive medium allowed anyone to be an "expert," but also resulted in the spreading of false and harmful ideas.
Misogyny, for example, prevailed as the experts both reflected and upheld the belief that men were naturally superior. Thus, parents seeking advice on daughters were told that "plumpness is bad for girls and leads directly to lasciviousness and dishonesty. Virgins should not be running from house to house, nor should they be seen lingering and chatting in the piazza." Women looking for marriage tips were constantly told that the good wife was subservient and silent. In the charmingly titled "I Donneschi Difetti" ("The Defects of Women"), Giuseppe Passi helpfully warns that any man who listens to his wife will end up dead.
While pointing out such social prejudice, Bell ultimately wants to entertain, and he does. His book is both fun and insightful, a revelation about the mores and morals of a bygone culture, as well as a comment on our endless desire for instruction. Foolhardy or curious, there is clearly a timeless need to turn to pages with promises about how to find happiness, safety, and love.