The vague instructionists


I like old books about how to do things - sewing instructions, cookbooks, housekeeping textbooks. They are quite unlike modern how-to books.

A modern book is well-illustrated with photographs or drawings. They definitely believe that a picture is worth a thousand words. Old books are wordier and may not have any illustrations whatsoever. When they do, they usually cover one or two key points per project. Fortunately these sparse illustrations are very good.

Modern books are explicit with their instructions. They walk the reader step-by-step through the entire process. Sometimes this is a bit overbearing. I do not need to be told to open the glue before using it, thanks. (And my coffee, it is hot. I will be careful.) Older books often start out in detail but peter out as if the writer got bored. I love the vague directions they write: "do it in the common fashion" or "proceed as usual to produce the finish."

There are two good reasons for this vagueness, as far as I can see. One is that most people have extant knowledge of "the usual way" that can be drawn on (at least contemporaneously to the book) to save time and words. Also, the writer can cheat a bit when he doesn't actually know the process by telling readers to draw on their own understanding - do it in the common way. If they don't have any understanding either, then they may feel stupid or be perplexed, but he will be far away writing the next book.

Older books use great terminology. It is correct, precise and sounds craftsman-like. Modern books simplify terms to make them easier for the lay person to understand, I suppose. Aglet vs shoelace end. Armscye vs armhole. Tisane vs tea. Those XYZ for Dummies books might not be such a joke after all.

Both modern and vintage instructions can be a bit frustrating with their materials and quantities. I think this is partly temporal and partly geographical. Of course in 1914, every American knew what a box of raisins was. Now Americans have a choice of raisin package sizes. In Japan, raisins come in plastic bags, not in boxes. So how many raisins should you use? Also, modern books tend to name specific brands, rather than giving details about the actual material. And that works now, when the item specified is popular and easily available. But how will anyone in 20 years know what a skein of "eco-andaria" is or what can be substituted?

If I ever write an instructional book, I think I will follow the vintage books and be both highly precise and utterly vague.


My mother had a cookbook from Scotland that was quite a bit like this. Some of the instructions were a little hard for us in the 70's & 80's to understand. Things like, "take a halfpenny's worth of salt and make it very fine", or use enough of substance X "to cover a sixpence."

It was the most amazing book. It had advice on making poultices for different health problems, storing fruit like oranges for the winter (in very dry sand) and my favourite, how to cure a sheepskin.

If I'm ever stranded on a desert island, I want that cookbook with me. It's called Tried Favourites. I'm not sure of the date though, there are quite a few on Amazon, but no pictures so I'm not sure which one we used to have. I haven't seen it for years sadly.

The recipes were also fabulous!

Books? I just try and find the instructional vid on YouTube nowadays (~_^)

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