Beware the bloke with a list

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The Independent Culture

The Man's Book, by Thomas Fink (WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON £9.99 (180pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897)

211 Things a Bright Boy Can Do, by Tom Cutler (HARPERCOLLINS £10.99 (300pp) £9.99 (free p&p))

Schott's Almanac 2007, by Ben Schott (BLOOMSBURY £16.99 (352pp) £15.50 (free p&p)

QI: The Book of General Ignorance, by John Lloyd & John Mitchison (FABER & FABER £12.99 (281pp) £11.50 (free p&p))

The stress of buying Christmas presents has a nasty way of sending us scuttling back to discarded sexual stereotypes: bath-oils and gardening books for her, socks and DVDs of The Great Escape for him. And so it is that many men will have woken up to find, sticking out of the stocking or piled under the tree, an example of a recent publishing phenomenon: the bloke's book of facts.

Books of amazing facts are nothing new: the Guinness Book of Records (renamed Guinness World Records) has lolled around the pre-Christmas bestseller lists for 50 years. A prominent entry in my boyhood literary canon was a paperback called Crazy - but True, by Jonathan Clements, packed with archly written one-liners and paragraphs about things that didn't always seem that crazy, and turn out to have been not always true ("an early set of false teeth was made of wood (elm) and was worn by George Washington" - see below).

The genre was given a shot in the arm in 2002 by the success of Schott's Original Miscellany, with its lists of notable Belgians and names of people on the Sgt Pepper album cover. The pleasure of Ben Schott's compilation lay partly in the ingenuity employed and evident pleasure taken in digging out recondite information, partly from the dry, donnish manner (set, as the book proudly informed the reader, in the classical-looking typeface Garamond). In this, it can be seen as a precursor of Stephen Fry's self-consciously whimsical and donnish television panel-game, QI. It has now spun off into publishing with The Book of General Ignorance, which has occupied the top spot of Amazon's hot 100 as if that were its favourite old leather armchair. This is an anthology not so much of facts as of anti-facts: John Ruskin wasn't shocked into impotence by his bride's pubic hair, "Ring a ring o' roses" has nothing to do with the Black Death, and George Washington's teeth weren't wood, but a combination of hippopotamus and elephant ivory.

The conventional, Nick Hornby-sponsored wisdom is that men, rather than women, like lists and facts. Neither Schott nor the QI team is avowedly aiming at a male audience. In 2006, though, a frankly butch sub-genre sprang into being. Conn and Hal Iggulden's The Dangerous Book for Boys came first; then titles such as The Man's Book and 211 Things a Bright Boy Can Do.

In all, a Schott-like nostalgic design and taste for recondite facts mixes with practical instruction on such masculine skills as knot-tying, fire-lighting, playing conkers and talking to girls. Taken together, these books imply that men require guidance: being a man is not a matter of simple hormones, of hairiness and a deep voice (which is a shame, because personally I have both of those licked). Nor is it, despite a knowingly Baden-Powellish tone, a moral issue to do with courage, honesty and loyalty (which is a relief, because those I'm still working on).

Manliness is a matter of knowing stuff, facts and skills; and, right now, men don't know anything. This picture of masculinity in crisis is most explicit in The Man's Book, which includes a surprisingly long theoretical section on the etiquette of urinals, though perhaps what this reflects is not so much an absence of knowledge as a relish for codification. For Thomas Fink, we live in "a time when the sexes are muddled and masculinity is marginalised". But The Man's Book will solve this, and his tone rises to the jokily messianic. "Blokes, chaps, men on the Clapham omnibus," he exhorts, "rejoice."

This mild confusion over nomenclature also afflicts Cutler, author of 211 Things..., who characterises his target audience as "boys, guys, geezers, blokes and fellows". It's notable they agree on blokes: Cutler's section "How to Be a Real Man" is subtitled "The Blokes' Bloke's Guide to Getting Ahead". By contrast, the Igguldens, whose Dangerous Book for Boys enterprise is almost disturbingly unironic, speak more plainly in terms of "men and boys".

Here we find another confusion: where does manhood take off from boyhood? The Igguldens started by offering nostalgia for grown-ups ("This book will help you recapture those Sunday afternoons and long summers"), and ended up dispensing sincere advice for the growing boy, such as a reading-list that tops out with Stephen King. They do not seem to recognise Conrad's "shadow-line", the division between youth and maturity (or, as many women have said to me, "Men are all just little boys, really").

Cutler doesn't recognise it either, since his activities include, alongside tricks with handkerchiefs and making invisible ink, "How to order wine in a restaurant", "How to take snuff" and "How to judge a woman's bra size at a glance". Even Fink, who starts off with adult-oriented sections on health (including how to take care of "The Family Jewels", fnaar fnaar) and "Drinking and Smoking", turns later to treehouses and conkers.

From all this, a picture emerges of a generation of men who missed their childhood. As adults, they are crippled by a lack of confidence and an ignorance of the most basic social conventions, but hope to get over it by dazzling others with extraordinary facts. The books present themselves as larks; but, underneath, they have a Dickensian pathos. My own advice to men who received these books as gifts would be: try to take them back to the bookshop and exchange them for a decent edition of Great Expectations or David Copperfield. And men who buy them for themselves? I fear you're beyond my help.

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