Ithought I would hate The Dangerous Book for Boys, the publishing sensation by British brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden. Actually, it’s irresistible, beginning with the cannily designed red-and-gilt, raised-letter cover reminiscent of Edwardian children’s literature. A grab bag of militantly old-fashioned pastimes, skills and informational tidbits, it has brief chapters on how to skip stones, play stickball and make a pinhole projector, plus smatterings of nature lore, history, geography and culture (accounts of famous battles, all safely in the past; “Latin Phrases Every Boy Should Know”). Morse code! Star maps! Invisible ink made of pee! Captain Scott! Grammar! Remember grammar? There are three whole chapters on it. Neat! I have no idea if today’s boys would rather identify trees or read about Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain than play Resident Evil 4 or download pornography, but it’s a safe bet their parents wish they did. In fact, it’s a safe bet parents would like to do some of this stuff themselves–teach a dog tricks, make a battery, read about the Wright brothers. Cool! Children’s books are bought by parents–and grandparents, even better for the Igguldens’ purposes, because you’d have to be nearly 60 to have grown up with the cultural references and worldview resuscitated here. In light of all this, it’s no wonder The Dangerous Book for Boys was a huge success in Britain, sits atop the Amazon charts and is piled three feet deep at my local Barnes & Noble.
The Dangerous Book speaks to widespread fears that the fun’s gone out of childhood–that kids are (take your pick) alienated from nature, cosseted by “helicopter parents,” bombarded with media vulgarity or, thanks to their dumbed-down educations, ignorant and bored. There’s a sense that we’re seeing the permanent disruption of a long chain of cultural transmission, whether it’s knowing how to make things–anything–by hand or knowing who won the Battle of Waterloo and what the subjunctive is. I’m old enough to have read as a child every one of the “Seven Poems Every Boy Should Know” (“Ozymandias,” “Invictus,” “Sea-Fever” et al.), and with the exception of Sir Henry Newbolt’s “Vitae Lampada,” which equates giving your all at cricket with invading the Sudan (“Play up! play up! and play the game!”), I wish kids read them still. I don’t even object to the page listing the Ten Commandments, a blatant pander to the Christian-homeschool market–didn’t I read somewhere that the majority of people who want the Ten Commandments displayed in the courtroom can name only three or four of them? Even bigots should know what they’re talking about.
But as the title makes plain, there is a gender agenda here. The Dangerous Book, like Dennis the Menace’s treehouse–did I mention there’s a chapter on how to build one?–is strictly no girls allowed. Girls are all very well in their way–there’s even a chapter on the need to “respect” them, bring them flowers and send them anonymous valentines–but like Dennis’s Margaret, they’re life’s wet blankets. Curiosity and courage, the Igguldens’ touchstones of masculinity, are not for girls–and neither, presumably, are the rules of poker or the making of fireproof cloth.
“Men and boys today are the same as they always were, and interested in the same things,” the Igguldens write. Really? Like, um, the rules of grammar? In interviews they’ve put forward the view, popular on the right, that boyhood has been squashed by female teachers, political correctness and the nanny state. But what about girls? Girls today skip stones. They play poker. They love secret codes–in fact, they always did. They’re just as curious about the constellations as their brothers are, if they’re lucky enough to live where they can see them. Given how much energy the marketplace spends trying to channel girls’ imaginations into princess fantasies and assorted bits of pink plastic junk, it’s rather amazing that this is true. But it is. Boys may not read books with female protagonists–they may not read at all–but girls will read about boys, which explains the success of Harry Potter. Why must getting boys into the fresh air (or The Lord of the Rings) depend on confining girls to sugar and spice? (Two British women writers are working on The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls, a wimpy imitation that features baking and a jumping game with the suggestive name of French elastics. Sigh.)
It’s not just the old-fashioned cover that marks The Dangerous Book as a throwback. Take the militaristic nostalgia (even for the imperialist Battle of Rorke’s Drift against the Zulus, and the pointless slaughter of Balaclava and the Somme). When I raised this issue in a radio debate on NPR’s On Point, Conn Iggulden suggested that battles appealed to boys longing to test themselves–but why these battles, and why (Greece and Rome excepted) always told from the Anglo side? I’m sure the Alamo looks rather different to the young Luises and Jesuses of our increasingly multiethnic America. Beyond that, is anyone served when heroism is united with war as an ideal for the young? What about the courage of standing up for justice? Of defying the majority? Of doing what’s right? Rosa Parks was courageous. Frederick Douglass was courageous. In fact, black history is full of heroes, but people of color barely appear in The Dangerous Book. Maybe the Igguldens think black boys don’t need a book like this–they’re already dangerous.
It’s not doing boys any favors to resuscitate the Anglo-imperial white manly ideal, given that Britain and America are becoming multiracial and multicultural societies in which women play bigger and more varied roles with every passing year. Playing up and playing the game, moreover, brought both nations the fiasco in Iraq. But then, as the British tend to forget, Captain Scott–brave, but ill prepared and amateurish and hampered by exactly the simplistic public-schoolboy mores promoted here–was a failure too. It was the clever, careful, modest Norwegian Amundsen who got to the South Pole first and lived to tell the tale. Maybe life isn’t like a game of cricket after all.
Still, I’m keeping my copy. Someday I may want to make a paper hat, or learn some coin tricks or even just find out what all those gadgets on my Swiss army knife are for.