Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: The Ann Landers Encyclopedia

Book Review: The Ann Landers Encyclopedia
Author: Ann Landers (E.P. Lederer)
Date: 1978
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0-385-12951-3
Length: 1182 pages with 30-page index
Quote: “Never in the history of the written word has an individual imposed on more busy an effort to pro­duce a single volume.”
The columnists known as Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (identical twins in real life) became famous for printing letters from people whose requests for advice really went beyond one writer’s opinion. Often they changed the details, printed the letters, and advised people in similar messes to get counselling. In other cases, they referred the questions to specialists...and The Ann Landers Encyclopedia consists, mostly, of advice from those specialists. This is the state of the self-help art circa 1978. There are lots of medical pieces written by doctors and psychological articles written by psychologists.
A random page of chapter headings from the table of contents lists these topics, all arranged alphabetically: shyness, sibling rivalry, sickle cell anemia, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, silence, sleep talking, sleepwalking, smile, smoke (secondhand), snakebite, snoring, sterilization, stomach (nervous), stress, stretch marks, strokes, stuttering, success, suicide, sunburn, sun lamps, surgery, tattoos, teenage drinking, teeth (capping), teeth (straightening), teeth (unsightly), and teething (of infants). 
There are, of course, several brief samples of Ann Landers’ and her correspondents’ wit. Landers shares letters from baby-sitters who felt exploited, people with tacky relatives, family members who hadn’t been on speaking terms for years, and so on. On some topics, such as “Twins,” Landers felt qualified to write the advice article herself.
There are, predictably, bits of advice that are out of date. The section on drugs discusses LSD and PCP, not crack or recreational Prozac. Much of the advice on disease conditions is what people still hear from their doctors today, but treatment options for several diseases have changed over the years. The section on guns claims that, even in 1978, a majority of Americans wanted to ban them; it’s now been abundantly demonstrated that this claim was based on misleading statistics.
The section on “school phobia” is particularly bad. By locating the problem exclusively in the child, stereotyped as a first grade or kindergarten student with “separation anxiety,” it completely fails to help parents whose children develop school phobia (at this age, or later) because there is a problem in the school such as bullying, bigotry, emotional abuse, or psychological abuse (such as misdiagnosing a child as having a disability because the school receives extra funds for disabled students). 
The section on homosexuality begins with a correspondent urging Landers to “take the lead in removing the stigma that has long been associated with homosexual orientation”; Landers, quoting “One per­son with courage constitutes a major­ity,” asserts that, although “homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, social or vocational ability,”  it’s still “a severe personal­ity disorder.” This was indeed the majority opinion prior to the AIDS panic and blood-throwing of the 1980s, and I salute anyone who’s not caved in to what were in fact terrorist attacks on those who withheld their support from the homosexual lobby. I wonder whether, if Landers were writing today, she’d have a list of the personality disorders that turned not only sympathizers but homosexuals themselves against the lobbyists: blood throwing, defamation of character, sexual harassment of children, harassment and persecution of fellow homosexuals who didn’t kiss and tell during the years when organized groups of pedophiles were welcome in their ranks, blackmail...
Probably not; Abby Junior dutifully kowtows to the homosexual lobby every few weeks, and yes, it costs her credibility, because much as I disliked the homophobia of the 1970s, and sincerely as I believe that homosexuality is one of the more adaptive natural responses to overcrowding found in most animal species, I have no respect for the idea of trying to win social acceptance by committing crimes. Landers, as of 1978, was not “pro-gay” but she was fair-minded enough to include more sympathetic people’s articles about “gay rights.” If she’d generalized this fairness to include a more balanced view of issues that have provoked fewer public displays of hysteria, e.g. the problems in our public schools and the reasons why we need school choice, she would have been...well, much further ahead of her time than she was.
In 1978 The Ann Landers Encyclopedia might have appealed to people in search of a home reference book about medical problems. I don’t recommend this book to that audience now. The Mayo Clinic has more up-to-date medical information online. The AMA Home Medical Encyclopedia (lots of disgusting but useful photos and diagrams) is a less outdated, more useful guide to medical terms and conditions. Jethro Kloss’s Back to Eden is a somewhat technical but still helpful guide to home health care and general good health.
Legal advice is also found in this book...and several of the changes Landers was advocating in 1978 have been made by now, but not all of them, so I don’t recommend counting on The Ann Landers Encyclopedia for legal advice either.
Who should read The Ann Landers Encyclopedia? Primarily, I think, this book should now appeal to those who liked her column. A few of the column’s all-time greatest hits occurred after this book was printed, but several of them are here. There’s a dated but not outdated poem by Judith Viorst about the couple who thought about spouse-swapping, didn’t think they believed in guilt but still felt it, and “decided / To give up secret meetings.” There’s Landers’ advice on in-laws: “f I could hand every newly married couple a framed motto as a wedding gift, it would say this: ‘Your first allegiance is to each other.’” There are her rules for happy married life: “Never both be angry at once. Never yell at each other unless the house is on fire.” There are several of her all-time favorite reprinted poems, Top Ten Lists, and one-line wisecracks.

It's also an historical document. If you’re looking for a compendium of the folk wisdom of America’s “Greatest Generation,” The Ann Landers Encyclopedia is that.

The author known as Ann Landers has been dead for a long time, so this is not a Fair Trade Book; it's just a book I happen to have for sale. If you buy it online, it'll still cost $5 for the book + $5 shipping. You may find a better price on this book online. So as an online reader you might want to let a local reader buy the copy I physically own, which will cost that reader less than $10, and buy a Fair Trade Book and let some of the money be used to encourage a living writer.