Confessions of a vintage advice book connoisseur: introducing our partnership with bestselling author Ann Douglas
It’s a gorgeous sunny day and I’m sitting out here on the front porch, flipping through vintage advice books.
It’s not like me to take an afternoon off in the middle of the week to do something quite this frivolous — the novel I’m trying to write isn’t going to write itself! — but I’ve convinced myself that taking a deep dive into the vintage advice literature is the very thing I need to be doing right now.
After all, if I’m going to start writing an advice column for The Honest Talk this fall — which, spoiler alert, I am! — shouldn’t I be spending some time refamiliarizing myself with the best and worst of the genre?
I definitely should!
My vintage advice book habit
Here’s something you might not know about me, even if you’re a long-time reader of my books. I’m a vintage advice connoisseur. I’ve been collecting vintage advice books for the past few decades, ever since one of my beloved grandmothers left me thirteen cartons of books when she died. Tucked in amongst the quilting books, the poetry collections, and the textbooks (my grandmother was a schoolteacher back in the early 1920s) was what can best be described as a Victorian sex advice manual. The book — which had been flipped through often enough to have lost its cover by the time my grandmother passed it along to me — was overflowing with just-plain-terrible advice about the perils of doing pretty much anything that might involve coming into close bodily contact with another person. Let’s just say it did a brilliant job of making the case for celibacy!
That fascinating (albeit somewhat disturbing) book was the first volume in my vintage advice book collection—a collection I’ve added to over the years as a result of many hours spent scavenging around in used bookstores.
Some of the books in my collection are laughably dated, like the beauty advice contained in Lovely You: A Blueprint for Beauty by Kate Aitken, director of the women’s program at the Canadian National Exhibition and — at least according to the cover copy — one of “Canada’s ten best-dressed women.” The key message in her 1951 book? Being beautiful is mostly a matter of trickery: “Any woman, anytime can have the illusion of loveliness.”
Other volumes in my collection have done a much better job of standing the test of time — like Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You by Judy Blume, which was published in 1986. The book is made up of letters that the author’s young readers wrote to her, sensing that she was someone who’d listen and who’d care. As one letter writer put it, “I just like writing to you. It’s like talking to a friend.” Who wouldn’t want to have a conversation with Judy?
Honesty and compassion
As I flip through the pages of the various advice books I’ve collected over the years, I realize that the ones I like best have something important in common: the columnists are writing from a place of empathy. Instead of rushing in to offer fiercely bossy, one-size-fits-all advice, they have chosen to take a step back; to err on the side of compassion and humility, not judgment.
I’ve tried to do something similar over the course of my entire career as an author — and it’s something I will strive to do here, too.
I will never pretend to have all the answers, because I don’t.
I’m just another gloriously imperfect person stumbling through life, trying to make sense of it all.
I’m hoping we can try to make sense of at least some of it together.
Have a question for Ann Douglas? You can write to her via The Honest Talk. She promises to read every letter you send her and to respond to as many questions as possible in her monthly column.