This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, June 23, 1993

June 23, 1993 - decline of manners

You are downtown and there is a gentleman giving baby elephants to people. You want to take one home because you have always wanted a baby elephant, but first the gentleman introduces you to each other.

What do you say, dear?

It's perhaps the best beginning of any book in history. So you flip the page, and you get the answer, charmingly illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

You say, "How do you do?"

What Do You Say, Dear? (subtitled, "A Book of Manners for All Occasions,� and written by Sesyle Joslin) was originally published in 1958. It happens that my wife has a copy of the first paperback version, printed in 1964. It sold for 35".

These days, it's hard to find that much good advice (or anything else) for just thirty-five cents.

Here's another situation that could happen to anybody. "You are flying around in your airplane and you remember that the Duchess said, "Do drop in for tea some time."

"So you do, only it makes a rather large hole in her roof.

"What do you say, dear?

Well, there's only one thing to say, and here's a book that cuts to the chase. You say, "I'm sorry."

The bad news is that What Do You Say, Dear? is out of print. You can't buy it at any price.

What's so bad about that? Well, for one thing, the book is a delight. Many of the situations it poses are preposterous. Children enjoy hearing them. (And make no mistake, this is a book meant to be read to children.)

On the one hand, the apparently banal or understated response of "good manners" is a sort of anti-climax - a joke.

On the other hand, an important lesson of this book is that it is precisely when life is at its most preposterous, most stressful, even its most dangerous, that good manners are most useful. They might even be necessary.

Another reason it's a shame you can't buy this book anymore is that good manners, in modern American society, are in serious decline. We need this book. We live in a time when we all insist on our rights, but few of us are willing to show simple human courtesy. We are quick to take offense - but equally quick to give it.

The purpose of good manners, or "etiquette," is to reduce social friction by defining some mostly commonsensical standards of conduct. The message of What Do You Say, Dear? is that people have an obligation to be polite, and that good manners are not some old lavender-and-lace affectation, but a simple and elegant response to the unexpected difficulties of life.

I wish I could say that a torrent of books have rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the demise of Joslin's classic. I know of a couple.

Do I Have to Say Hello?, by Delia Ephron (subtitled, "Aunt Delia's Manners Quiz for Kids and their Grownups") is available from the library.

Another is No Bad Bears: Ophelia's Book of Manners by Michele Durkson Clise.

In fact, if you do a subject search on "manners" at one of our computer terminals, you'll find 33 titles on the subject, with a good mix of children�s books.

That's encouraging. But if you're as worried as I am about the creeping rudeness of American culture, you might want to take a closer look at some of these modern day guides to civilized behavior. Who knows? One of them might inspire you to brush up on your manners at home, in your neighborhood, at your local library - and why not? - in all your business and political doings.

What do you say?

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