6 min read

Boys to men in 800+ pages

The surreal world of books for boys.

Growing up, I was really fond of encyclopedias. At home, we had illustrated books on the Viking Age, Ancient Rome, and a 600+ page Biology encyclopedia that had articles on everything from Mendel and Vavilov to T-Rex and anthrax. That one was my favourite, and I can only imagine how much it must have cost my mom (good books were not cheap back then, and that one was an exceptionally good book).

I’d also frequent the local library quite often, bringing back volumes published in the 70s and 80s, with a little pinch of Marxism-Leninism sprinkled on top of topics like Astronomy, Botany or Music. There was also a children’s book published in like ‘90 or ‘91, explaining capitalism to kids. The titular character - Misha the Bear - would go shopping at a supermarket and talk about shares and bonds. The 90s was surely an interesting time to be alive.

But among this flurry of colourful books dedicated to specific subjects, there was one book that stood out. The book was called “All a boy should know - from A to Z”, and it was published somewhere in Russia. I imagine the genre is known around the world - books for boys and books for girls that are supposed to carry answers to questions an inquiring kid of either gender might have. Only the book I had was more like a compendium of EVERYTHING the kids were expected to know in life. And the editors had a very peculiar combination in mind.

Николай Белов - Все для мальчиков от А до Я обложка книги
The Justin Bieber-esque cover doesn’t reflect the pretty serious contents of the book at all. But hey, don’t judge a book by its cover, right?

For this piece, I tried searching for a PDF of the book on various torrent websites and shady online repositories to no avail. If I knew a copy was floating around somewhere on the Dark Web, I’d happily wire some DogeCoin to a guy with a Pepe-the-frog profile picture. What I did find were photos of the content pages which I will re-create here, with a little bit of explanation.

Here is what a boy, reading this encyclopedia, would learn:

  • How to set up and maintain an aquarium. Twenty-odd pages on choosing the right tank, filter, soil, and so on.
  • Astrology - myth or truth? Rather than being descriptive and all Richard Dawkins about it, the book simply has several sub-chapters dedicated to various horoscopes.
  • Athletics. From wimp to Adonis with simple dumbbell routines.
  • How to run.
  • Business ideas! The book gives advice for budding entrepreneurs on making a buck by dog-walking, taking care of gerbils, cleaning windows, making gift baskets, taking out people’s trash, and so on.
  • Learning about your biorhythms. I recall a graph of some sorts. Early aughts woo? Maybe.
  • Shaving without mistakes. I skipped that lesson for sure.
  • How to maintain your bicycle.
  • HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE. Probably just a summary of the famed bestseller.
  • Attention. No idea what they had in that chapter. Maybe I wasn’t paying any…
  • Training willpower. Hopefully, the authors by now know that the Marshmallow study doesn’t replicate.
  • Vices. Drugs, smoking, and alcohol, in that particular order.
  • Money in the past and today. With a sub-section on how to tell real US dollars from counterfeits (dollars were used as a store of value in times when other currencies were less reliable).
  • Practical tips on how to stop stuttering.
  • Self-defence. Includes a subsection on self-defence after you’ve been knocked down.
  • Eyesight - no need for glasses just yet! Some (probably) pseudoscientific methods of curing myopia.
  • Boardgames for intellectuals. As the reader was probably expected to be a grandmaster by this point, chess is not included in the book. Instead, we have Renju (played on a Go board) and Shatra (a chess-like game played in the Altai region).
  • Outdoor games.
  • Intimate life. The chapter consists of extremely clinical descriptions of coitus (as dry as an anatomy textbook would do it), reproduction and… “a couple of words on masturbation”.
  • Collecting. I don’t recall the contents of this chapter, but I do remember how collecting was an essential part of boyhood growing up. Pogs (known as caps here), stickers, stamps, coins, rocks, stolen Mercedes-Benz emblems - the more, the better.
  • Computer. Back in the day, when computers weren’t impossible-to-repair black boxes, it was crucial for your status as a teenager to know how to assemble, upgrade and tweak PCs. Even if you only knew how to reinstall Windows ‘98, you were nicknamed “the programmer” by older relatives and neighbours.
  • Ice skating. A short manual on choosing a pair of skates, taking care of your skates and being good at ice skating in general.
  • Taking care of a cat.
  • Drugs (the medicinal kind).
  • Personal hygiene. Wash your teeth, wash your face, wash your… you get it. Plus, a controversial take on getting rid of freckles.
  • Agility. No idea what this section was all about.
  • Skiing.
  • Table tennis.
  • First aid. A boy must know how to treat snake bites, perform cardiac massage, and save a friend from drowning.
  • Communicating with people. Oddly enough, this section has both sub-chapters “How to make the other person says “yes” and “how to avoid manipulative people”.
  • How to talk to grown-ups.
  • Clothing. Includes a manual on ironing.
  • Proper posture. Jordan Peterson would love this one!
  • How to improve your memory. As I vividly remember many pages of the book, the methods must have worked.
  • HOW TO USE A GUN. Boys love guns. And this book has a manual for becoming a better marksman.
  • Nutrition at a young age.
  • Swimming for those who haven’t learned it yet. Includes a section on diving - a thing that many kids take for granted and end up in a wheelchair.
  • Flatfeet and how to treat it.
  • Weather and forecasting. How to forecast weather on your own. A useful skill? Of course!
  • Taking care of a parrot.
  • Hiking and camping. Includes practical tips on starting a fire, finding North, and telling time without a watch.
  • Woodworking.
  • Metalworking.
  • Maintaining a healthy routine.
  • Religion in today’s world. 60+ pages dedicated to teaching the young reader the main things to know about Christianity, Islam, Hare Krishna (they were very popular in the former USSR), and Buddhism.
  • Rock music. For some reason, only 10 pages are given to this rich subject.
  • How to grow taller. Physically, I mean.
  • Fishing. Various methods are described here, all legal.
  • Skateboarding. Coolest kids learn how to kickflip from books, right?
  • Compulsory military service - how to prepare yourself? If my memory serves me well, this section contained a bit on how to avoid “dedovshсhina” (bullying in the army that can result in serious injuries or even death). The reader was expected to be conscripted at some point in his life. And the book suggested they learn a skill that might be useful to their direct superior in the army. Becoming a scribe to avoid hazing was the best advice they gave.
  • How to listen in conversations.
  • Taking care of a dog. Way more extensive than the sections on cats and parrots.
  • AIDS - a global problem. Growing up, we were told to always check our cinema seats for needles. Urban legends about some HIV-positive villains going to lengths to infect as many people as possible were ripe.
  • Sports for those on the go. Squeeze in a few pull-ups on your walk to the bus stop. Solid advice there.
  • Natural disasters. Sub-sections include floods, earthquakes, fires, lightning strikes (don’t hide under big trees!) and nuclear radioactive contamination. In school, I still remember being taught how to use the Geiger meter. We had a small piece of depleted uranium that made the meter tick.
  • Happiness is when you’re understood. Leaving good first impressions, knowing how to say no, and ways of noticing things.
  • How to set up and maintain a terrarium.
  • IQ test. I remember taking this! I was hella smart, of course.
  • Homework.
  • How to stop feeling tired.
  • Morning workout routine.
  • MAGIC. Impress your friends with these 10 tricks!
  • The basics of photography.
  • Your personality. A breakdown of main emotions, like fear and anger, and personality traits.
  • Why should we read?
  • The basics of good behaviour. In public transport, in the library, on the street, and so on.

And that’s all in one book folks! Everything from obscure Siberian chess to raising a parrot to woodworking.

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Before I sat down to write this all up, I thought I’d cringe more. Looking back, the book seems quirky and kind of cool. Sure, there’s a lot of weird fluff, but it honestly reads like a book compiled by a dad who wanted his son to know stuff and learn stuff. A way more wholesome approach than the horrible copypasta that is “Rules for my son”:

I wonder, if I ever had to write such a book, what I’d include there? For example, cooking is completely missing from the picture, and so is personal finance. Maybe advice on how to avoid grifters? A guide to basic dances? Intro to volunteering?