Reading the instructions: do you?


So, how many of us have tried to put together an IKEA bookshelf?

Painful. Excruciating. Bloke surges ahead without interpreting the Swedish furniture giant’s über-odd instructions and finds he’s fixed the top  shelf panel to the bottom, or the front to the back.

Or: you’re lost out in the wilds of who-knows-where. And will bloke stop for directions? No he will not.

Instructions; directions. A tenuous piece of data interpretation by Gadget Helpline  says out of some 75,000 calls analysed in 2009, 76 per cent of men would call the helpline without first reading an instruction manual – compared with 36 per cent of women.

Yet still people write them, as they have been for millennia.

But mass production of instruction books: that’s another matter. For that, the manuals had to wait for the advent of the printing press.

An unlikely name to go down in the annals of Manual history: Wynkyn de Worde. Mr De Worde, a printer, and William Caxton’s sidekick, was amongst the first to ignite a trend for printing books telling blokes what to do so that they could completely ignore the instructions.

Yet I wonder if, in fact, blokes might have actually read this one, first printed by De Worde in 1486.

Because it was not about how to put up shelves or wire a plug or suchlike. It concerned the inside word on controlling your hunting hawk, or catching that elusive monster pike, or hunting a wild boar which would feed a family for a month. It was called, not a book, but a boke. 

It was the Boke of Hawkynge and Huntynge and Fysshynge. And it is about to go on show at the British Library.

Perhaps this boke had enough wild romance to capture the male heart. An outdoor pursuits manual full of diagrams of fishing tackle-making tools and tips about how to get naughty wayward hawks to come back.“Take fresh butter and put sugar on it and put it in a clean cloth; call the hawk back to that and keep it in a box in your bag.” it reads.

It is that peculiar combination of complex workable detail and wild romanticism which is familiar. I wonder if it comes from the same roots as  JRR Tolkein’s invention of a new language – including its own runes and complex topography – for Middle Earth. It is the fine detail of an obsession.

Nowhere does that combination of fine detail, hard fact and dreamy mythology ring truer than in the life and works of Terence Hanbury White, author of  series The Once and Future King, an incredibly accessible and charismatic take on the old Arthurian tales.

When White began writing full time, he moved into a cottage in the wilds of the country, and lived the life of a hermit, hawking and fishing and hunting.

A book came of it: The Goshawk, a stunning account of how White trained the trickiest of all the birds of prey, using a later manual than our aforementioned bokeBert’s Treatise of Hawks and Hunting (1619).

He mastered hawkynge the old-fashioned way: which included holding the hawk on outstretched arm for three days, until the bird trusted its master enough to fall asleep, there, on his arm.

Now there was a man who followed an instruction book to the letter.

Yet he was freed by those close-woven instructions, not limited by them. They made him happy:

“A little music and liquor, still less food, a warm and beautiful but not too big roof of one’s own, a channel for one’s creative energies and love, the sun and the moon.

“These were enough, and contact with Gos in his ultimately undefiled separation was better than the endless mean conflict between male and female or the lust for power in adolescent battle which led men into business and Rolls-Royce motor cars and war… In the end one did not need European civilization, did not need power, did not need most of one’s fellow men, who were saturated with both of these: finally would not need oneself.”

His words me want fervently to read his instruction manual.


30 thoughts on “Reading the instructions: do you?

  1. I may be in the minority among my male brethren, but, I do read directions and instruction manuals in most cases. It goes back to when I was teaching school, coaching, and farming full time and I was the designated mechanic to keep all the tractors, combines and such in working order. If one has never attempted to pry apart the inner workings of a farm combine, there is no way in the universe to figure them out without an instruction manual. Not just a few pages with pictures, but, a tome of well over 350 pages with detailed descriptions of what to do and how to do it , but, far fewer pictures than one would like.

    Let’s just say that following the iPhone manual is a piece of cake compared to a Massey Ferguson Combine.

    1. I am full of admiration, Lou. All those occupations and tractor maintenance too…makes one exhausted just thinking about it! Hats off to you. A tractor manual might as well be written in Russian for all I could understand it.

    1. 😀 Old English, Tandy…you remind me that not everyone knows it! Once upon a time, ‘ing’ could be spelt any number of ways – ‘ynge’ being one of them. My favourite is ‘boke’ for ‘book.’

      1. tee hee!

        Originally this was the type of label an Australian company put on all their men’s cycle wear…
        it wound everyone up then – and the company claimed it was only done as a joke.

  2. Little easier than Chaucer. I did my MA paper on New England Puritans Massachusetts 1600’s which was easier to get through as were works of Milton, Donne, Moore, Bunyun and so on.

  3. Did it drive anyone else crazy when you opened your IPad box and there were no instructions other than, turn on? Even if you don’t read the instructions, for some reason we think we need them “just in case”. Guess what we sell often to collectors – manuals.

    1. Yes, Apple are always doing that to me. The unwritten message: “We consider you so intelligent, quirky and creative that you’ll work it out by yourself” is geeky beyond belief. And not always practical.

  4. i’m great at reading instructions because without them I’m hopeless. And I’m married to someone who refuses to read them. We have some interesting history with Ikea items, too! What a fantastic book. I’m sure you’ll have to be one who sees it and admires!

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