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The complete idiot's guide for dummies

It doesn't take a genius to figure out why these stupid books became a phenomenon (Hint: It's not rocket science.)

If you are of superior intellect (yes, we mean you!), you know that you'd be kicked out of Mensa if you were caught reading "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Anything" or a yellow-covered copy of "Whatever for Dummies." So let's begin with a pop quiz. 1. True or false -- From "Calculus for Dummies": Regarding the infinite, if you consider the series 0.1 + 0.01 + 0.001, etc., and if you go out far enough, you'll find a number with so many zeros to the right of the decimal point that even if each zero were as small as a proton, there wouldn't be enough room in the entire universe to write it down.

2. True or false -- From "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Submarines": In the reactor compartment, the reactor vessel is a large cylinder of steel fabricated of 6-inch-thick magnesium-molybdenum alloy steel with a hemispherical bottom head and four nozzles that connect the vessel to piping systems.

3. Regarding "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tantric Sex": What the heck is tantric sex anyway? And the Yoni and Yab Yum in Chapter Two? Where, exactly, can they be found on the body?

Hey, no need to feel embarrassed that you have "Idiot's" or "Dummies" editions on your shelf. You're not alone. They sell well, in part, because there's apparently no shortage of people aware that, in the words of the poet David McCord, deep down, they're very shallow.

Since the genre was introduced in 1991 with "DOS for Dummies," the "Dummies" series has sold 100 million copies, the "Idiot's" series 20 million.

The "Idiot's" people boast that if their 20 million books were laid end to end, they'd stretch from Washington to Akron. The "Dummies" folks counter that if their 100 million books were laid end to end, they'd stretch across the country 5.5 times. (Note: To reconcile the difference, please refer to "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Numerology.")

"We were first," says Diane Steele, vice president and publisher at Wiley Publishing, which produces the "Dummies" books. "Until 1991, there wasn't anything like `DOS for Dummies,' and it was incredibly successful because it was the time that computers were landing on desktops. So `DOS for Dummies' discovered an audience, and within five years there were 11 clones of which only `Idiot's' survives as competition."

The "Idiot's" folks are defensive, insisting on their website: "Interestingly, our readers are NOT idiots." They also note that the "Complete Idiot's Guide" readership is typically 60 percent female.

With 796 "Dummies" titles (69 new this year) and 450 "Idiot's" titles (79 this year), there's something to appeal to nearly every dumb idiot, which is why "Dummies" books are published in 38 languages.

Here's the least you need to know: It's not only Americans who are desperate to be recognized as something other than dumb and who are willing, therefore, to part with $20 in order to accumulate enough knowledge to survive the next cocktail party. And who knows? Perhaps by dint of reading many of the pages they may ascend the intellectual ladder from Dumb Idiot to Know-It-All and maybe even Smart Aleck.

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