A few times a year, I get to visit my parents. In addition to drinking all their beer and packing my car with their kitchen equipment, I also enjoy taking a few books away with me when I leave. Going through my parents’ bookshelves, where all the books of my life end up, is a distinctly pleasurable activity. Like a song, the titles stacked along the shelves contain distilled memories, and the best books are not actually the ones I’ve read countless times, but the ones I picked up only once. The books I’ve read time and time again give me the sensation of greeting an old friend, and the feeling is comfortable and sweet. “Oh, you again,” I think, my finger slipping across the spine. But the books that belong solely to one time and place, these books give me a tiny jolt, like encountering the name of an old crush whom I haven’t thought of in years. My finger will pause, and then tug against the lip of the spine to take a peek at the cover, to see if memory has warped, or amplified, the book’s original charm.
One such book, found in a pile in the basement bookshelves, was Life’s Little Instruction Book, by H. Jackson Brown, Jr. The size of a large index card, roughly fifty pages long, and simply decorated in plaid print, the book looked unquestionably dear. The subtitle promised, “511 suggestions, observation, and reminders on how to live a happy and rewarding life.” As a kid, I had thumbed through this book once and, finding nothing useful in its 511 aphorisms, tossed it aside. Even now, as I returned to Life’s Little Instruction Book, I assumed my parents had picked up the trifling thing at a garage sale, it looked so inconsequential (in fact it was a best seller when it was published in 1991). I had no plans to take it back to school with me, but brought the little booklet up to bed anyways. I was intrigued, as I must have been as a kid, by the cover’s strange combination of confidence and humility, with “Life” and “Little” printed side-by-side.
Rarely does a book, especially in the self-help genre, do exactly what it promises. Brown’s book was indeed instructive despite, or rather because of its smallness. Sometimes, especially with advice, and absolutely with generalized and all-encompassing advice, brevity is the key. In the book, every piece of advice is numbered, and rarely does one go longer than one line. The focus on the little is what makes this book more than merely mundane, as it could have so easily been, and even as Brown makes grandiose statements about kindness, forgiveness, integrity, these moments are sandwiched by advice about bank managers and chili and nice silverware.
Of course, Brown’s advice is meaningless without a context, which he barely provides, but luckily, human beings are well-equipped at bringing their own shit into every situation. Which is exactly what I did, without even realizing it, and by the end of the reading experience, I had somehow untangled some of the personal knots in my life—nothing that big, but also, nothing that small. And while few of Brown’s tidbits remain in my head now, though only a day has passed since I read it, the ones that do are delightful. But instead of reading through the book again, or taking copious notes, or even bringing the book with me in my car, I am hiding Life’s Little Instruction Book in another one of my parents’ bookshelves before I drive home. I would hate to deny my future self the frission of discovery. As with all advice, the more you hear it, the less you think it has anything to do with you.
5. Overtip breakfast waitresses.
40. Never refuse homemade brownies.
56. Never mention being on a diet.
245. Never cut what can be untied.
316. Learn to disagree without being disagreeable.
430. Select a doctor your own age so that you can grow old together.
434. At the movies, buy Junior Mints and sprinkle them on your popcorn.
511. Call your mother.
Lillian Li is a graduate of the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers' Program. Her novel, about an upscale Peking duck restaurant outside D.C., is forthcoming from Henry Holt. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Guernica, Granta online, and Jezebel. Follow her @ZillianZi
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