Essay: The Myth of Boyhood

Picture a world where your father walks with you down a starlit road, pausing to point out Orion. He recites Robert Frost, knows how a battery works—and all the rules about girls. "The Dangerous Book for Boys," by brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, is peaking on Amazon's best-seller list (No. 5 last week) by recalling just that world. The compendium of trivia, history and advice is geared toward preteen boys, but it's found a surprising audience in men in their 30s and 40s, too. The book's marbled endpapers, archival illustrations and dry, humorous tone ("excitable bouts of windbreaking will not endear you to a girl") offers a portal back to a time of "Sunday afternoons and long summer days."

But did this world ever exist? The book's success suggests we'd like to think so. First published in Britain last year, it was conceived as a homage to the popular "Boy's Own" periodicals from the early 1900s. It's inspired a host of copycats, including "211 Things a Bright Boy Can Do," by Thomas Cutler, and "The Daring Book for Girls," out in October, while a reissue of the 1890s volume "The American Boy's Handy Book," by Daniel Carter Beard, is moving up the charts on Amazon. Clearly, nostalgia for the halcyon world of our fathers and grandfathers is strong.

But that nostalgia may tell us more about who we are now than who we were. Stephanie Coontz, author of "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap," says parents worry they're not spending as much time with their kids as past generations did. In truth, "people are spending more interactive time and resources on their kids than ever before," Coontz says. The real problem is they think they have less to teach them.

"Dangerous" author Conn Iggulden says technology is partially responsible for this insecurity. "I can't fix a car like my father used to, because my car has a computer in it," he says. "Once it was possible to know everything. It gets harder in the modern world."

Such is the nature of nostalgia: "When you have anxieties about the present you express them by hearkening back to a safer past," says Coontz. As gender roles become less defined, possession of a discrete store of traditionally "masculine" knowledge (how to build a go-kart) gives men a sense of order in a disordered universe. For now, conservative pundits and bloggers have seized upon "Dangerous" as a corrective to the "feminization" of the culture: Christina Hoff Summers writes that it "valorizes risk, adventure and manliness."

The anxiety might also be for our children. Robert Baden Powell, father of the Boy Scout movement, wrote "Scouting for Boys" in 1908, out of concern that the young soldiers he had fought with in the Boer War were physically and morally unfit. "At the height of the British Empire, the older generation worried about boys' becoming pasty and soft and useless," says Conn Iggulden. "I see similar concerns today."

But the Boy Scouts of America, with its exclusionary policies toward gays and atheists, and emphasis on safety over fun, may feel old-fashioned in a bad way: enrollment has declined steadily for a decade. "The Dangerous Book for Boys," on the other hand, suggests activities with a whiff of rebelliousness without advocating anything truly unsafe. It also gives parents a product, in today's commercial age, refreshingly free of brands or logos. Of course, they're still falling for one of the most enduring brands of all: nostalgia.