Sunday, December 30, 2007

Book Review: The Dangerous Book for Boys

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

--Robert A. Heinlein

The Dangerous Book for Boys is one of those books that I, a son raised in a home run by a single mother, would have greatly appreciated when I was younger. With my father the better part of 1,000 miles away, I probably could have stood more guidance on the manly arts: building things, digging around the dirt, studying war, and in general getting myself into what used to be considered normal rites of passage, including training a dog, hunting and skinning rabbits, making a bow and arrow, and building a treehouse. In short, the Dangerous Book covers many or most of the activities males for the last century or two would have found familiar in these United States or the U.K. Judging by the reviews on, I would say that the Dangerous Book must fulfill an unspoken need for others as well. It is one of many salvoes being fired in the War Against Boys, which is trying to emasculate, marginalize, or medicate masculine behavior. Not to be outdone, of course, a female author has already written a book entitled The Daring Book for Girls, which was printed by the same publisher.

Interestingly, when I told my mother about this book, she asked if it dealt with fighting at all, which is one of the few things the authors--Conn and Hal Iggulden--do not address. A chapter on boxing alone might have saved me all sorts of headaches between the ages of five and fifteen. In any case, I highly recommend this book because it seeks to instill some of those masculine virtues and skills that only the Scouts are allowed to teach anymore (if at all). It also aims at directing the reader toward a bold and well-rounded personality, including sections on battle history as well as poetry, astronomy, and the Ten Commandments.

The writing style is best described as fatherly: at turns mildly humorous, patiently lecturing, or engagingly encouraging. I believe the best age you might safely give this book to a boy would be 10 to 12, when he's old enough to have some sense of responsibility but hasn't quite got the hang of girls yet (there is a section on girls as well, which is charming and quite harmless). The first section starts off with a list of "essential gear," the first item of which is a Swiss army knife, so you need to be sure your son is responsible and careful enough to handle such things.

I do have some gripes with the book, the primary and most glaring item being the quality of the binding. Many sheets were not cut well or were stitched together at the top, causing the reader to have to gently split them apart without tearing them too badly. The authors confuse "rotation" with "revolution" in describing the movement of planets around the sun, and describe the Space Shuttle as the fastest vehicle human beings have ever designed (that would be the Saturn V or the New Horizons spacecraft); this is particularly surprising, given that the book only came out this year. They also do not include the juvenile works of Robert A. Heinlein in their list of "books every boy should read." And, again, the book has nothing about schoolyard scrapes, which are often the most important formative experiences for boys, leading as they do to understanding self-defense, hierarchy, and even friendship.

The Dangerous Book for Boys is worth having around, especially for single moms who are searching for ways to make their sons have a "normal childhood."

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