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?

I knew, I reasoned, how to be a man. I had been one for quite some time—about a quarter-century, give or take. I tied ties, mixed drinks, held doors, said "please" and "thank you" when the situation warranted. I watched Mad Men for extra credit. Case closed—right?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Right—until I stumbled on Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs, the Pulitzer winner's forthcoming book of essays. The title says it all; could I be, unwittingly, a neophyte? And suddenly everywhere I looked, a manly peanut gallery offered its advice. By the register at J.Crew, on a seasonal cardigan errand, I noticed a stockpile of slim paperbacks that promised to make a man of me. The self-help section at Barnes & Noble—a wrong turn on the way to Wine/Wino Interest—offered masculinity … for Dummies, for Idiots, and for Women (by straight men, by gay men, even by other women). I sat down with a library's worth of guidebooks on the fickle subject of manhood and its laws. My very foundations rocked. Were my tie knots the right tie knots? Were my drinks the right drinks—properly shaken, or was it stirred?

The manhood movement lacks the single clarion voice of an Emily Post or Miss Manners. There is no Mr. Manners. But is there a single, reliable guide—the sort for occasional, surreptitious reference checks?

Methodology
The canon of how-to's is large; comprehensiveness is impossible. I aimed, instead, for a representative sampling across genres. I selected a guidebook you might find in your mechanic's garage and one you might find in your dermatologist's office; one from the place you buy your ties and one from the place your father buys his; and, for good measure, a historic, 18th-century source. I scored each manual out of a possible 20 points.

Relevance (five points)
Advice that can't be followed is hardly advice at all. Could the guidance of these sages be put into some useful practice? Were specifics offered, and examples shown? A good guide should be wide-ranging, clear, and feasible.

Charm (five points)
Sure, a few good pointers help, but—as the saying goes—it's all in the delivery. Did the guide make its case forcefully and persuasively but with an eye to my reading pleasure?

Manliness (10 points)
Which brings us to a crucial question: What is this piece of work, man, anyway? A semantic confusion asserts itself. On the one hand, your garden-variety fop is a man; on the other, so's John Wayne. The guides suggest that manhood comprises (at least) two types: gentlemanliness (a deft touch with silverware, laundry starch) and yeomanliness (a way with the weed wacker, a Boy Scout badge in knots). So I've split this category into two, awarding up to five points for advice a gent might find useful and five for instructions aimed at a more rugged sort.

Letters of Lord Chesterfield

Letters of Lord Chesterfield I began, if not quite at the beginning, then at a cornerstone: the collected letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth earl of Chesterfield. Lord Chesterfield's letters, published after his death in 1775, outline his worldview to Philip Stanhope, his beloved, harangued, and illegitimate son. Chesterfield wants only what's best for his offspring—that is, that he become exactly like his old man. His manner is not exactly soft. He's pushy, condescending, and harsh, and his son probably found him less charming than you will—which figures, as you don't actually have to deal with him and his demands for constant improvements and reports. ("I have Arguses, with an hundred eyes each, who will watch you narrowly, and relate to me faithfully," he warns.) Reading the letters, you will treasure your own father and thank the stars that you were not born an out-of-wedlock Stanhope.

Debate on the merit of Chesterfield's wisdom began early. The letters, best-sellers though they were, are today less famous than Samuel Johnson's low estimation of them—they teach, he opined, "the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master." Adultery, cynicism, and lying are all cardinal virtues, and well-said trumps truly-said nine times out of 10. "Nature has hardly formed a woman ugly enough to be insensible to flattery upon her person," Chesterfield instructs in one of many passages on the fairer sex. Here is a man who never told his wife, yes, she looked fat in that.

There's a hint of Polonius about his long-winded advice, especially when he recommends brevity: "Talk often, but never long. … To have frequent recourse to narrative betrays great want of imagination." And Chesterfield's lessons are more on the order of diplomacy and (occasional) chivalry than skills or talents. For a goal-oriented man of the 21st century, that can be frustratingly abstract. The letters won't teach you how to press your trousers or comb your hair, or what a gentleman should drink. These are tasks better suited to chambermaids and wenches, butlers and barmen.

But there is, sprinkled throughout, some positive advice. Be spirited but not giddy; enjoy pleasure but not too much. An overly pious disposition won't serve you too well, especially around the ladies. Will all of this be helpful to the modern man? In broad outline, sure; in specific, probably not. The author, for his part, felt—with an embedded compliment to himself—that there was "too much Latin in them" for general use. Any modern edition will gloss your lordship's Latin, but unless a royal appointment to the bedchamber opens up, good luck finding an opportunity to apply the maxims herein.

Relevance: 2
Charm: 4
Gentlemanliness: 5
Yeomanliness: 0

Total: 11

What a Man Should Know by Max Blagg, illustrated by Hugo Guinness

What a Man Should Know by Max Blagg, illustrated by Hugo Guinness The Chesterfieldian spirit lives on in a What a Man Should Know, a compendium recently published by J.Crew, the national retail chain, which has of late devoted itself to the pursuit of high-born airs. (Formerly a mall brand for cut-rate khakis, J.Crew has spent the past years opening Mad Men-ish outposts for the discerning gent, where vintage bric-a-brac and blue-blood totems like Alden shoes and Mackintosh slickers sit beside cargo shorts.)

The J.Crew man, like young Stanhope, is to know his lords from his commons—or, the modern equivalent, his bullshot from his slingshot. (The one's a Bloody Mary variant; the other, Bart Simpson's weapon of choice.) He not only wears the blue blazer, he knows its origin, and he has liberal arts bona fides: "A man should be familiar with some of the films of Fellini and Antonioni." And now that we're safely in the 21st century, he doesn't need to be well-born, just well-groomed and well-outfitted—most likely in (hint, hint) J.Crew.

Blagg and Guinness' guide is, to take its own word for it, Volume 1 of untold future volumes. Good thing, that—while this first attempt suggests many things a man should know, it's far less concerned with how a man might come to know them. Instructions are presented generally: "A man should know how to properly fold a newspaper (broadsheet, not tabloid)" and even be able "to fashion it into a weapon on the lines of the 'Millwall Brick' favored by certain English soccer hooligans." A trip to your local pub may provide some pointers on this; What a Man Should Know does not. Likewise precept No. 41: "A man without a maid should know how to make his bed correctly." Further than that, no aid is offered, except that this correct bed-making really ought to happen soon. Sorry to keep you waiting—I blush a deep, wearable Nantucket red at the lapse. But are you going to tell me how?

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

Total: 12

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.

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

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