Dumb and the City

“Fatty, fatty, fatty fat fat!” exclaims Lynn Fischer, author of Lowfat Cooking for Dummies. “Sometimes I wish it was still OK to run up to [obese] people and point and say that. Sometimes childhood taunting has its benefits. They're killing themselves!”

Fischer, along with 50 peers, is in San Francisco for the first ever Unconference for Dummies Authors — a meeting for series writers to share marketing strategies and contract-negotiating techniques, held last weekend. If Fischer, a Betty White look- and sound-alike, is blunt, that's just her job. The Dummies series is by definition unceremonious: You can't stroll into a store and ask for IBS for Dummies (that's Irritable Bowel Syndrome) without a little humor and self-awareness.

The series was born in San Mateo in 1991 with DOS for Dummies, a jargon-free, reasonably priced guide to a seemingly cryptic operating system. Now with more than 2,000 titles, the series — owned by Wiley Publishing — sees itself as leading a populist revolution of knowledge. At the Dummies headquarters in Indianapolis, each book goes through an intense editorial process that involves checking its most esoteric information for accuracy, fitting it with cartoons, and “dummifying” it into upbeat, eighth grade-level English.

When customers see the bold yellow-and-black design beaming from the shelves of their local Barnes & Noble, it's like spotting the golden arches on the highway: “It's a formula, like a Big Mac,” says cartoonist Rich Tennant, whose work has appeared in every Dummies book. “I know what I'm getting. I know what it'll taste like.”

And McDummies are exportable, if culturally nuanced in translation. Dr. Alan Rubin, an S.F.-based physician and the conference's organizer, saw one of his four Dummies books marketed in Russia under the title Diabetes for People Who Can Boil Water.

Rubin, like most Dummies authors, is a practicing professional and expert in his field. Since Wiley declined to organize the conference, he launched a grass-roots effort to pull it together — and the participants' eclectic knowledge came in handy.

A Public Relations for Dummies author handled the conference's publicity, Insurance dealt with liability issues, and Family Websites built the online organizing portal. The projector broke, and AV for Dummies stepped in to fix it. Hell, you could build a village with these people. If the Big One hit and the third floor of the Union Square Hilton held the only life in a sea of murky landfill, humankind would forge on with a continued understanding of Etiquette, Living With Hepatitis C, and the role-playing game GURPS, just to start. And no one would be fatty fat.

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