From the Brits—Who Else?—No Girls Allowed!

THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS
By Conn and Hal Iggulden
HarperCollins, 270 pages, $24.95

O.K., it’s a title designed to offend. There are sections in this encyclopedia of boyish stuff about how boys can make a bow and arrow and why they have to tolerate girls. But that’s not what’s really weird about this book, which was a best-seller in Britain. What’s weird is that the macho Dangerous Book for Boys resembles nothing so much as that homosexual writer’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. In this case, the writer boys are pining for the time when the sun never set on the British Empire.

Despite alleged retooling for the American market, from the opening invocation from “Sir Frederick Treves, Bart.” to the last acknowledgement for reprint rights to “For the Fallen (September 1914),” this is more a book about pre–World War I Great Britain than about the pre-feminist 1950’s. Of the 12 battles described in two chapters devoted to military derring-do, eight were fought by British forces. The chapter called “Questions About the World” explains the placement of the prime meridian at Greenwich in 1884 quite as if empire were a fact of nature. The trees discussed are all species native to the British Isles. This “dangerous” book even has sections on that perennial English favorite, grammatical correctness. If only there were a food section, they could have called it Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

Five of the seven heroes of the “Extraordinary Stories” were Brits: Con Scott, the Arctic explorer; British climbers in the Andes; a World War II flying ace; even the northern cousin Robert the Bruce. The authors warmly recommend the classic thin-red-line movie, Zulu. No wonder The Dangerous Book For Boys sold more than half a million copies in the U.K.; the last time British troops were in a bind, they apologized to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and came home looking like something from the Men’s Wearhouse.

That said, there’s something anachronistically fun about the book, in the long tradition of self-confident cultures and their encyclopedias (Britannica). Reading it was like traveling in a time machine. In spite of myself, I sort of fell in love with its willfully retrograde selections­—the chapters on the golden age of piracy, the history of artillery and how to make dogs do tricks. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the marbled paper on the front and back covers and the frontispiece. There’s a whole section on how to make marbled paper! I bet Lord Peter Wimsey had marbled paper in all his books.

I hate the frères Iggulden, not for doing a good job for “every boy from eight to eighty” (as they promise on the provocative back cover), but for making their book radioactive: What parent would present a daughter with a title like this?

And what she’ll miss if they don’t!

Linda Hirshman is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (Viking).

From the Brits—Who Else?—No Girls Allowed!