At this point you might well ask yourself where I got the idea that I could do such unusual things, on my own, based solely on ideas that came into my head, with no prior experience in things like digging holes under the earth or talking to creatures no one else had ever seen, or writing newspaper columns, or putting together sports cars. It’s all because of the Do It Yourself principle that men have followed for generations.

My father had a shelf full of books called The Illustrated Do It Yourself Encyclopedia, Popular Science Edition, published in 1955. On the title page of each volume you read the reassuring words:

Complete How-To Series for the Entire Family

Written in simple language

With full tep-by-step instructions

And profusely illustrated

The covers were identical, with drawings of hammers and pliers and other tools on them. These books were far more dangerous than they looked. They told men they could do anything they set their minds to.

Want to build your own boat? The plans were contained in Volume 2. Unhappy with the state of your weedy lawn? Tear it up and rebuild it, as described in Volume 7. My family has always followed this principle. My father built his own picnic tables and chairs as a side business. He built a barn in our suburban backyard, and a storage building beyond that. His own father built a violin case by meticulously molding and pasting newspaper together.

After a few successes, it’s a small leap to projects that seem far more complicated, like Chucking Your Failed Marriage and Starting Over with Someone New (Volume 11) or Running Off to the Desert to Live in a Trailer and Escape the Worries and Cares of the Workday World (Volume 13) or Leaving Your Comfortable Office Job and Striking Out on Your Own (Appendix A, under Advanced Projects, Not for the Faint-Hearted). These were all delightful undertakings that were pursued by my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather.

As it says in the introduction to Volume 1 of the Encyclopedia:

Individualism is part of the American way of life. Everyone wants his home, inside and out, to be different from his neighbors’….No longer need you bewildered by some technical terms or serch for an easy-to-understand solution to any how-to problem. Just pick up the volume, then do-it-yourself!

Harold Joseph Highland

Editorial Director

When I was out in the street digging my hole and I hit a nest of roots, I ran for the Encyclopedia. I looked under R. The book said:

Roots tie trees and people together and provide nourishment for past and future generations. But occasionally roots may have to be broken for a construction project or simply to achieve the perfect green lawn that is the dream of every suburban homeowner. You will discover that, while roots take a long time to develop, they can be severed in a matter of minutes. Don’t worry: they will grow back eventually.

I grabbed a saw and an axe from the storage house my dad had built in the backyard, and headed out to the street. I wasn’t thinking about undoing the work that my little friends had done. I was possessed with the idea of finding my way back to them and leaving the world where no one was connected to anyone else, or to any tradition, or any particular place. It didn’t seem ironic. If I had looked under I in the Encyclopedia, I would have read:


The do-it-yourselfer, in his determination to create or repair or renovate something, must take care not to destroy something else. Use recycled materials whenever possible. Otherwise you will only create more work for yourself.

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