Friday, May 07, 2010

A Team of Advisors Working Around the Clock

I'm sure I've shared with you my love of advice columns. I'm sure that people who know me in person understand how firmly I like to give advice, even when I just barely know what I'm talking about. I've also got the voyeuristic streak of someone who spends too much time with fiction, and I love the condensed form of life's weird and wonderful and awful permutations that is the advice column.

I think my current favorite is Carolyn Hax. I also read Ask Amy, Miss Manners, Savage Love (um, not work safe), The Ethicist, and (God help me because she's awful) Dear Abby. Plus assorted chats and, really, anyone who offers personal advice. Occasionally I'll read a pet advice column, if one crosses my path. Or parenting, work--seriously, I'm a junkie.

And when these columnists compile their work, I generally eat it up. Miss Manners' collective works are a particular favorite. Somehow, though, in spite of this--proclivity? obsession?--I was surprised at how much I liked The Good, the Bad, & the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations, by Randy Cohen of Ask the Ethicist fame. I liked the book even more than I like the column, which is surprising, since it's really just a collection of columns.

The thing is, advice columns are less about the advice than they are about the problems. And in most advice columns, at least 75% of the time, it's easy to know what the right thing to do it. "Dump him." "Stop nagging." "Drink less." "Lock the door when you're in the bathroom, then, dummy!" I don't blame people--it's always easier to see the answer to someone else's succinctly summarized problems than it is to figure out how to change your own sprawling and messy life.

The neat thing about the Ethicist, though, is that his problems are often more stymieing.* Not always--he gets his share of questions where the answer is "Just don't be such a jerk." But there are so many places where rules (an honor code, a movie theater's no-food policy) conflict with what might seem right or kind (not ratting out a friend, bringing a bottle of water to a movie).

The problem I usually have with the column is Randy Cohen's hokey sense of humor. His jokes read like Great Uncle Horace's attempts to jolly up Thanksgiving dinner. Just corny. In the column, it often grates on me, and makes him feel less than sharp. But looking at his answers in volume, as with the book, the thought that he puts into some of these answers, and the insight that they reflect cumulatively, become more noticeable. This relegates the corny humor to something more tolerable--a charming quirk, rather than a lack of comedic insight.

A quick read, and definitely right up there on my list of "advice column collections I've enjoyed." At the very least, you'll get a few conversation starters out of it.

*Seriously, the word spell check claims I'm not making up are often startling.


Brenda Pike said...

Do you follow these on an RSS feed? I don't think I would search them out, but I might read them if they were collected for me...

I like Dear Prudence on Slate. But I hate hate hate Cary Tennis on Salon. The questions always drag me in, because they seem more targeted at my demographic, but his answers are ridiculous.

LibraryHungry said...

I stopped reading Dear Prudence when the writer switched. The old Prudence was conceited, but funny--it was like an advice column written by Zsa Zsa Gabor. The new one, Emily Yoffe, is annoying. She's the one whose advice to someone whose family was pestering her to have children when she didn't want them was to listen to her family--if they think you should be a parent, maybe they're right. I stopped reading her after that.