Can a book teach you how to be a man?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Sept. 15 2009 6:57 AM

Mr. Manners

Can a book teach you how to be a man?

(Continued from Page 1)
How To Be a Gentleman by John Bridges

How To Be a Gentleman by John Bridges Brooks Bros., the quasi-official outfitter of starchy, traditional fathers and their starchy, traditional sons since 1818, published the first edition of How To Be a Gentleman a decade ago, and has been churning out regular updates ever since. You might think Brooks isn't the place to turn for text-message etiquette, but you'd be wrong. A gentleman, we learn, never walks and texts at once. Likewise, "A gentleman starts off each of his emails with a traditional salutation. He writes, 'Dear Sally,' rather than 'Hey!!!' "

For all its up-to-the-momentness, though, a spirit of priggishness suffuses the guide. Of the "10 Eternal Truths of Gentlemanly Life" provided, the injunction to carry a handkerchief feels a little precious, and the commandment not to find jokes about race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation amusing is well-intentioned but maybe a little rigid. (Sure, but have you heard the one about …?) Some are so straight-facedly odd that they border on the Dada: "A gentleman never offers to share his sunblock." An unmentioned but no doubt approved corollary: A gentleman never revels in the sunburns of others.

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These moments of weirdness are largely outliers, though. The guide is comprehensive and includes helpful diagrams on points of potential confusion (bow-tie tying, table settings). Better still, it assumes, even to the point of embarrassment, no prior knowledge at all. "There are certain questions a gentleman never asks," the author gamely instructs. To wit: "Are you going to eat all of that?"

Relevance: 5
Charm: 2
Gentlemanliness: 4
Yeomanliness: 1

Total: 12

The Esquire Handbook of Style by the editors of Esquire

The Esquire Handbook of Style by the editors of Esquire Esquire's Handbook of Style is less an etiquette guide than an instruction manual for your closet—or, more precisely, the closet you should have but don't. And like many instruction manuals, it dispenses with heavy servings of text in favor of charts, diagrams, illustrations, and photographs. (In this, it's also like most men's magazines.)

Sectioned into chapters on individual items and genres—the suit, the trousers, the shoe, the boot, etc.—each unit opens with a history-minded preface and then delves into the innumerable particulars. How close an acquaintance you desire with your suiting will probably determine your enjoyment. The basics are thoroughly covered—the varieties of single and double-breasted suits; the correct buttoning practices for the one-, two-, and three-button jacket—as are trivia best filed under "extra credit." (The overlapping cuff buttons on a suit sleeve are known among tailors as kissing buttons, for example.) Everywhere, illustrations make the point. Whereas J.Crew decrees that button sewing is a thing a man should know, Esquire provides the five-step method.

Those who learn best by celebrity example are well-served, too. Icons of proper habillé are distributed throughout, some likelier than others. Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando are held up as worthy of imitation—you can pick up a thing or two from them about the insouciance a white T requires. (Spoiler: It's all in the sneer.) Bogey's tweeds, Spencer Tracy's pleats, Steve McQueen's black turtleneck (given an additional vote of confidence in a sidebar editorial by, of all people, David Mamet)—these are all styles you'd want to steal. Other examples are more opaque. What you can glean from Bob "Gilligan" Denver on the proper wearing of men's sandals is anyone's guess.

Relevance: 4
Charm: 4
Gentlemanliness: 4
Yeomanliness: 1

Total: 13

Popular Mechanics' "100 Skills Every Guy Should Know"

Popular Mechanics' "100 Skills Every Guy Should Know"
Does your gearhead uncle's favorite magazine have anything to say on the fine art of becoming a gentleman? As it turns out, yes. There's an encyclopedic breadth to the editors' selections, from the dive-right-in ethos of "Tape drywall" (No. 1) to the yes-sir salute of "Fold the flag" (No. 100). The article's format—and its sheer breadth—means that each entry is necessarily brisk and to the point. Flag-folding is delineated in a six-point diagram smaller than a cigarette pack. It may take, as the appended legend explains, two people to fold the flag properly, but it takes only 32 words to inform you of all you need to know. The tone, in other words, is pragmatic and plainspoken throughout—the Mechanics man has no time for chat. (Imagine what our old friend Lord Chesterfield would have to say about that.) And I won't lie—sometimes the strong, silent type can be a little daunting. Plowing through the 100 things a grown-up Eagle Scout should know by heart, I got a little wistful for the other guides' engaging conversation. They seemed, by comparison, almost candlelit. And do I really need to know how to treat snakebite?

Well, maybe. I make it a policy not to go anywhere wooded, leafy, or otherwise natural, but another man might—and besides, for all I know I may end up stranded on a snake-filled roadside on a journey between urban centers. What's great about "100 Skills" is that it's, plainly, a lot of skills, and the editors skip lightly from each to each. God save the snake that bites Lord Chesterfield or saunters into J.Crew; heaven help the one that molts his spotted skin too near Esquire or Brooks. A lengthy disquisition's sure to follow. But Popular Mechanics answers tersely and moves on, to ladder-safety, car waxing, and how to iron your shirt. No muss, no fuss; for use value, it's hard to beat. And, yes, it even includes a point-by-point guide to tying your tie. For the classic bow: "Remember 'The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes around the tree, and goes back down the hole'? Still works." Why, so it does!

Relevance: 5
Charm: 3
Gentlemanliness: 3
Yeomanliness: 5

Total: 16

Matthew Schneier is a writer, editor, and gentleman in New York.

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