I bought my first etiquette book when I was nineteen years old. I was digging through the discount bins in front of a used-book store and found a late edition of Amy Vanderbilt's aptly named Complete Book of Etiquette. It must have been an ironic purchase. Or maybe I intended to use it for an art project (I went through a brief period of text-based decoupage). But my smirk faded as I started to read, and I ended up reading it from cover to cover -- from birth announcements to funeral arrangements.
This book was a revelation and a lifesaver for me. I was an awkward, haphazardly brought up young man. Newly arrived in San Francisco, I was often paralyzed by social anxiety in everyday situations (I cringed away from sales clerks, for instance, and often had a hard time looking even close friends in the eye). Being so shy made it difficult for me to do necessary things, like enroll in college classes and buy cigarettes. Drinking helped, but that's not a path to a successful and happy life, either. When I looked around, it seemed that other people (the sorts of self-confident, worldly people I wanted to be like) had learned something -- something about getting along in the world -- that I hadn't learned during my chaotic youth.
So Amy Vanderbilt was a godsend. Her book provided simple instructions on how to pretend I was a normal person. I know, of course, that no one sees himself as a "normal person" -- that we are all pretending. But with Vanderbilt's help, I could approach new and unfamiliar situations (dinner in a nice restaurant, a religious wedding ceremony, a professional job interview) like someone who had been raised to expect that these things would be part of his life. Vanderbilt's masterwork also taught me how to stop looking at myself and start considering other people: this is not only a first step to overcoming acute self-consciousness but also a fundamental rule of good manners.
When I was in my early twenties, a roommate and I used to play a game called Psychic Dictionary. (You close your eyes, ask the dictionary a question, and then open it and point to a page -- the word where your finger lands is the answer to your question.) This evolved into Psychic Amy Vanderbilt, a game in which we allowed Vanderbilt, through her book, to guide us from the hereafter. Vanderbilt was even more cryptic than the dictionary, but she was a font of good advice nonetheless. One might ask her, "Will I fall in love tonight?" and receive the answer "If you are a guest, it's better to leave your bed strictly alone unless you are perfectly sure you can make it up at least the way you found it": this doesn't answer the question, really, but it's a good thing to know if one wakes up in an unfamiliar bed after having been swept away by passion.
This game, I think, is how I became known as someone who was interested in etiquette. And so when a friend would come across a peculiar old etiquette book at a garage sale, for instance, she might pick it up for me. These books always delighted me -- even if one was on the whole unoriginal or dry, or just poorly written, it would usually contain a helpful reminder about the importance of kindness, or a sparkling gem of a phrase, or one odd chestnut of a rule that perhaps explained a modern way of behaving (because etiquette rules never die -- they just metamorphose). So I began seeking out these books at garage sales and in used-book stores. Thus was a collection started. The books in my collection not only gave me practical advice and even spiritual guidance, but also provided delicious escapism -- fantasies of a life in a posh Manhattan penthouse, where the stationery was creamy; the servants, well trained; and every dinner, a formal affair.
In reality, my lifestyle was hardly "high society" (and still isn't), but that's the wonderful thing about a good etiquette book. Despite common misconceptions, etiquette is only secondarily about monogrammed linens and how to comport oneself during an audience with the Pope. Even if that sort of thing isn't interesting to you, a good etiquette book is a guide to organizing your life so that it's as pleasant as possible. "Mind your own business," "forgive people who insult you accidentally," and "take a very small first bite when eating something new" are helpful rules for any social milieu. With my education in the basics, I was able to become more adept at my own environment's particulars. (An audience with a celebrity drag performer is not so very much unlike an audience with the Pope.)
Of my collection, my favorites included oddities -- Amy Vanderbilt's treatise on proper smoking, sponsored by Lucky Strike, was one. I love Eleanor Roosevelt's Book of Common Sense Etiquette, because it is so very commonsensical and wise. (The brief introduction to that book is the best explanation, and defense, of etiquette I've come across.) I also adore the books that have become campy with the passage of time: anything published in the 1970s and intended for young people, for instance. Or, published in 1966 and written by two grandes dames of Oklahoma society, Kay Corinth and Mary Sargent, All About Entertaining: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Fabulous Social Life comes to mind. I didn't add any books I truly disliked to my collection -- usually books written by people who had completely confused "manners" with "money" (an all-too-common mistake). I collected the modern writers, too, of course: the inimitable and magnificent Judith Martin is a hero of mine. And then there are current niche writers who considered guidelines for tipping tattoo artists or for planning a same-sex leather-themed wedding. It's all interesting stuff.
This collection changed my life. It led me to study and examine society in a way I might never have considered. And it taught me how to behave like someone who'd had more advantages in life than I'd had (I detest snobs, but they're out there, and some of them are in charge of important things involving your income potential). So I became a better person, and I became a successful social climber, too: at least, I climbed my way to somewhere respectably in the middle. My study of modern manners then led me into a part-time career as an etiquette columnist and etiquette expert, and to publishing my own book of manners advice, in 2004 -- this was a delightful eventuality that the 19-year-old me would never have guessed at (and that, I'm sure, still seems bizarre to many people who knew me when).
But books are heavy, and I move a lot. My collection became, in time, a burden. Although knowing arcane etiquette rules was a comfort in stressful situations, being known as an "etiquette expert" started to become a stress inducer, for two reasons: First, it made some people feel uncomfortable around me (this may have been my imagination, in many cases). Second, it made me feel pressure to be a model (or a caricature) of perfect behavior -- even though, despite what I've learned, and beneath the part-time "Mr. Social Grace" persona I've created, I still experience moments of social panic (and still sometimes want to scurry away to hide in a dark room with a book and a bottle of wine). I began telling people that my etiquette writing "wasn't really me." And more and more of my collection got moved into storage.
I decided a couple of years ago to stop writing about manners -- in part for aforementioned reasons, and in part because I felt as though I'd said everything original I had to say on the matter. I wanted to see whether I could write about other things in my free time. So I stopped turning to my well-loved etiquette books. I would occasionally glance guiltily at, oh, my 1910 edition of The Lady (a history of ladies and ladylike behavior), by Emily James Putnam, and think, "I don't need you anymore, Emily, but how can I live without you? I've become so accustomed to the gilt lettering on your book's spine -- a gentle reminder not to gossip or slouch."
Then I went through some upheavals in my personal life, and I knew it was time to start creating new habits, and to open myself up to new ideas and new experiences. I believe that physical surroundings influence a person's thoughts and feelings, and looking around my apartment, I saw crowded, cluttered bookshelves. If books represent ideas -- well, I am belaboring a metaphor. In short, I decided that it was time for my collection to go (along with a lot of other stuff). I'm done with it.
A few books went to a book dealer, but most got taken to the thrift store a couple of blocks from my house. Getting rid of this once-treasured collection brought only relief -- even joy. I imagined a modern-day teen perhaps benefiting from one of them (or turning it into decoupage). And I hoped that these books would help other people as they'd helped me -- by allowing me to see the world as a place where civility is possible, where most people have good intentions, and where you do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. A good etiquette book shows readers a world where there are simple, easy-to-follow rules for not only demonstrating respect for other people but also bettering one's own life.
I kept an edition of Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book, of course -- one of the editions with the charming line-drawn illustrations by a pre-fame Andy Warhol. But the book isn't part of a collection anymore. Now dear, tragic, wise Amy is just my old friend ... my old psychic friend.
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