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ENTERTAINMENT

Could you use some advice?

Authors have no shortage of suggestions

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Freshman Year
"How to Survive Your Freshman Year" kicked off several titles by Hundreds of Heads.

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(CNN) -- In this 24/7 world of sensory overload, it's always nice to have a little guidance, especially when:

  • You're getting ready to move. What should you know?
  • You'd like to boost your reading. How do you do it?
  • You're starting college soon. What should you expect?
  • How the heck do you make it through the first year of parenthood?
  • Have no fear. Along with established works -- the "Dummies" books, the "Idiots" works, a new Miss Manners etiquette guide and the like -- there are new titles on the shelf to help you through life's eternal questions. Or, perhaps, that thing you have to get done by next week.

    'Hundreds of Heads'

    Yadin Kaufman's oldest son was getting ready to attend college a few years ago, and Kaufman was trying to tell him -- and have others tell him -- what the experience was like. But each person's story was a little different: some good, some not so good, some offbeat.

    The best perspective, Kaufman noticed, came from casting as wide a net as possible.

    Thus was born "Hundreds of Heads" books, based on the principle that "hundreds of heads are better than one," says Kaufman in an e-mail interview.

    Kaufman teamed up with an old friend, Mark Bernstein (a former CNN executive), and they put together a publishing company to produce "Hundreds of Heads" survival guides. Titles have included "How to Survive Your Freshman Year," "How to Survive a Move," "How to Survive Your Marriage" and "How to Survive Dating," with books on retirement, divorce, pregnancy and diet soon to come.

    The books have struck a nerve: "Freshman Year" was the No. 1-selling college life guide of 2004, according to Kaufman, and "initial sales are strong" for the other titles, he said.

    The books are compiled by "headhunters," free-lance interviewers who seek out friends, relatives, Internet posters -- anybody who's ever gone through the experience. In the process, the headhunters find they learn as much as the book's readers.

    "It's amazing how people will come up with something that seems so obvious and so simple, yet it never occurred to you before they said it," writes Pennsylvania-based headhunter Ken McCarthy via e-mail, adding, "we're making a concerted effort to talk to as wide a variety of people as we can."

    And how do they separate good advice from gripes from someone's Uncle Harold? It's a gut reaction, says California-based headhunter Andrea Syrtash: "If it resonates -- if a light bulb goes off for me -- it's a good one," she says.

    "None of us has all the answers," Kaufman says. "I've learned that the advice you get from everyday people can be just as -- or more -- helpful to specific situations than the things you read from the 'experts.' I've also learned that nearly everyone shares the same anxieties -- and that people take great comfort in knowing they're not alone."

    A new father

    cover.guys.guide.jpg

    Michael Crider never intended to write a book. But he never intended to become a father either.

    Crider and his wife, Julie, had pretty much decided not to have children when, to their surprise, she got pregnant. (One of his book's first bits of advice: Don't believe the claims of an allegedly spermicidal product.)

    Crider kept a journal of life during Julie's pregnancy, figuring it would make a nice memoir for his child someday.

    Along the way, Crider -- a supermarket employee -- realized that his diary might make an interesting book. He told a friend, Arthur Marx (son of Groucho), about his project, and the book was pitched to an agent. It's now "The Guy's Guide to Surviving Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the First Year of Fatherhood" (Lifelong).

    "I wanted to give a true-life account," says Crider, 34, of his amusing, sometimes unpredictable take on new parenthood. "A lot of books I read were either too clinical or too cartoonlike."

    Among Crider's thoughts: Never trust the word "normal," which takes on a whole new life during pregnancy; watch out for the "musts" at baby-product stores (wind-up music boxes? jogging strollers?); and there are some things -- like the material that new babies excrete -- people don't tell you about.

    Crider's son, Ryan, is 5 now, and Crider has given some thought to new book projects. But there won't be a sequel to "The Guy's Guide" about a second child.

    "I had a vasectomy," Crider says.

    How to read books

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    You wouldn't think Steve Leveen, founder of the Levenger "tools for serious readers" retailer, would need to get more books into his life. But the author of "The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life" (Levenger Press) writes he barely used to read at all.

    "Like so many young people beginning their careers, I had my nose to one grindstone after another, missing ... great books in their varieties," he writes in "Well-Read Life." It took him years to "repair my own ill-read life," he adds.

    "Reading well is a contact sport," he says in a phone interview. "Fundamental to the approach is taking active control of your reading life."

    To this end, Leveen recommends making lists of reading possibilities, keeping a reading journal (even if just a list of titles and short comments), partaking of audiobooks (an excellent companion to walking and driving, he notes) and discussing books with others.

    He also urges people not to agonize over their reading. If you start a book and it doesn't speak to you, put it aside. Not every book is for everybody -- even those touted as classics. "What will it mean if you give up? It means you will have sampled many [more] books," he says.

    Leveen is also an advocate for writing in book margins, a belief that shocks some book lovers. He terms the division a debate between "Preservationists" and "Footprint Leavers."

    When he asks an audience if any members write in books, "I'll get one or two timid hands raised," he chuckles. "I'll give them one of my books and a pen, and say, 'Welcome to the dark side.' But I do respect Preservationists."

    So far, many of Leveen's audiences have been at libraries and bookstores -- in other words, people who already read zealously. But he's beginning to take his crusade to corporate boardrooms. "I'm looking forward to that," he says. "That's what I was."

    Above all, he says, nonreaders shouldn't get discouraged. It's never too late to start, and there's no shortage of material.

    "We live in an El Dorado of books, and yet we take it for granted," he says. "Most of us hope to learn and educate ourselves, so it's curious to me why so many people are passive about the books they read. ...

    "We need to be athletes of reading," he adds. "Not just spectators."

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