Book Review: The Art of Manliness Classic Skills and Manners for the Modern Man

Photo: Omad

I just finished reading The Art of Manliness: Classic Skills and Manners for the Modern Man by Brett and Kate McKay. Skills for building a career, surviving in the wilderness, and more are covered. Here are some of my favorites in the rugged man and refined gentleman categories.

Stone skipping

I'll start with the one of the skills that I most admire about my husband: the ability to skip stones over water (see post photo for illustration). The secret to successful skipping is revealed (or in my case, reinforced as my husband has advised me many times): choose carefully. The best skipping stones are flat and even. Basic instructions from the book:

Stand facing the water at a slight angle. With the rock in your hand, pull your arm back. As you throw the rock, cock your wrist back. Right before you release the stone, give your wrist a quick flick.

Rugged Man

1. Start a fire without matches. There are many ways covered in the book but what seems like a handy way to me is using steel wool and batteries. My son, the Boy Scout, attended a wilderness survival outing in which he learned this method though he didn't actually start a fire. Still, I can see how these two items could have multiple uses at base camp or in the woods, so I will encourage him to pack these, separately, on his next trip.

2. Navigate without a compass. Actually, navigating with a compass is tricky for many people. I finally learned how to use one when my husband and I took a canoeing trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Unlike previous outings on rivers in the southeastern USA in which there is just one direction to follow, we had to find our way around lakes and islands with a map and compass. Given the alternative of getting lost in the wilderness, I managed to follow the canoe trail and then get us back to the launch site.

Deciphering directions without a compass is also discussed in the Boy Scout handbook (a McKay favorite), which I am becoming familiar with. Besides using the North Star (aka Polaris) to figure out which way North is (useful for those in the Northern Hemisphere on a clear night without light pollution), there are variations of the shadow-stick method, such as the sun-shadow method, in which you detect the east-west line (and then north and south depending on your hemisphere). Place a stick in the ground with no shadow; when the shadow appears (and is at least 6 inches), it will point east. I can see how this technique would allow you to travel in the woods.

3. Rescue someone from drowning. As a former lifeguard, I was particularly interested in this section. My training indicated that I should never put my life at risk to save someone else's and the book mostly reinforces this message. The techniques include handing a flotation device to the person in distress, and there are instructions on avoiding being pulled and kept under water by a panicked victim.

I'll also recommend controlling risk: teach your kids to swim, find danger areas in a body of water, evaluate the skills of swimmers, and watch what other people are doing. Though I have only rescued one person (a kid in a pool), I may have saved others as I once had to explain to a large man that if he didn't know how to swim, then he shouldn't jump off the diving board into the deep end.

4. Jump start a car with cables. After having a battery die without warning, I keep jumper cables in my car. The last time I used them though was to help someone else. I think I had to call someone for instructions. It is nice to have the details in the book (you could keep the book in the glove compartment and the cables in the trunk): turn off the cars; connect the red ends of the cable to the positive terminals of both batteries; connect one of the black ends to the negative terminal of the good battery and connect the other end to a "clean, unpainted metal surface under the disabled car's hood," and start the cars. The next part I remember from my own episodes: make sure the car with the low battery is running for a few minutes before disconnecting the good battery, and then drive the car for a while to recharge the battery.

I love this mnemonic device from the blog: "red=positive=blood=life/black=death=negative" to remind me which cable end doesn't need to be attached to the low-juice battery (the black one). I'll mention that if you run down a battery (by listening to the car radio while the car isn't running, for example), then this technique works very well. If the battery is just completely worn out, you may need to get the car towed and replace the battery.

Refined Gentleman

1. Make a speech and toast at a wedding. Having witnessed rehearsal dinner speeches that made me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable (and concerned about the future of the couple's marriage or the toast-giver's state of mind about relationships), I especially liked this section of the book. Advice includes: "Share a story about how your friend would always lament that he would never find a woman with x, y and z qualities, but how he finally did in his new bride....What gets people in trouble is attempting to be funny by sharing an embarrassing story or cracking some lame joke about a ball and chain." This section, with detailed instructions and a crib sheet, is probably worth the cost of the book.

2. Purchase a well-fitted suit. The section on dressing like a gentleman is similarly valuable, covering jacket fit, drape, and length as well as tips on choosing where the trouser break will fall. Having this guide can be helpful in making a suit selection and communicating with a tailor or a sales associate at the men's store.

I'll mention that the sizing of dress shirts lists the neck size first (16, for example) and then the sleeve length (34, for example); a man's neck size may change as he gains or loses weight but the sleeve length is likely to stay the same. (Also discover ways to save on suits while preserving manly sophistication).

3. Shake hands. This one seems obvious to me: "full grip" also described as web-to-web, firm, and clean with eye contact and a smile. In the blog post, there is some discussion about whether the rules are the same for women; I think they are.

I just learned that there are swine-flu handshake variations, such as the closed hand, knuckle-to-knuckle greeting.

4. Be chivalrous. Open and hold doors for others, retrieve dropped items, and walk closest to the street on a sidewalk are all acceptable and desirable methods of being chivalrous. I ;notice and admire such behavior as it shows an awareness of other people's needs, willingness to be kind, and courage to take risks. Chivalry, proper use of Facebook, and more is covered in the "Guide to Being a Gentleman in 2008" ebook (PDF) presented by The Art of Manliness.

Knowing how to do certain things can instill calmness and confidence in everyday and emergency situations, a benefit of reading this book. The authors also want to redirect the notion of manliness from the "dithering dad" often depicted on television and "six-pack abs" kind of guy to a more sophisticated, honorable gentleman, not that there's anything wrong with great abs.

Instructions on interpersonal relationships were good though there wasn't much information on being a husband, considering the space devoted to courtship and fatherhood. I agreed with much, though not all of the advice, particularly the recommendation to ask your intended's father for his blessing in a pending marriage. Even my greatest-generation dad would have felt uncomfortable, mainly because he wanted his daughters to make good decisions without being overly influenced by any man, including dad.

I did appreciate the overall lightheartedness and humor, something I think can be lacking in modern-day conversation. In a section on establishing rites of passage for boys to become men, for example: "If you ask them [grown men, presumably] when the transition occurs, you will get a variety of answers: when you get a car, when you graduate college, when you get a a real job, when you get married, when you switch from Honey Nut to regular Cheerios, and so on."

As the married mom of 2 sons nearing manhood and the daughter of a man from the Greatest Generation that the McKays esteem, I found the book to be practical and entertaining.

Disclaimer: I received The Art of Manliness free to review.

Average: 3.3 (3 votes)
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Guest's picture

i really do not remember the last time i read an entertaining book. the last one was benjamin graham's the intelligent investor and the yesterday i got a copy of security analysis 6th edition- same author so my days are and nights have been taken up with (at times clunky) investing books. I should buy this books read it and get out more instead of being glued to computers all day long. i tried to skip a stone once and it did not even touch the water

Guest's picture

I suppose that living within a mile of Lake Michigan my whole life makes me surprised that stone skipping is not an universal childhood activity. I suppose that someone would be just as surprised to learn that I can't swim more than five feet.

Guest's picture

what seems like a handy way to me is using steel wool and I will encourage him to pack these, separately, on his next trip.

So long as he's planning and packing ahead of time, why not just pack him some matches or a lighter?

Or some flint and steel.

Steel wool works, but if you're planning why not use something more effective?

Julie Rains's picture

The steel wool and batteries are not necessarily in place of the matches and/or lighter but in addition to them: back-up batteries for flashlights and steel wool for scrubbing pots.

I have enjoyed seeing scouts not just being prepared but doubly prepared. On one of my last canoeing trips, I noticed that one of the families with us (the dad is an Eagle Scout) brought a first aid kit. I thought it was odd since I knew where the services were and would have (previously) never brought my own supplies, but purchased what I need. It was just a habit he had developed, which has probably served him well. He has spent a week in the BWCA while I have just managed a day -- so far.

Thanks for everyone's comments -- I am a good swimmer but not so good at skipping stones.

Guest's picture
Stacey Marcos

If you haven't you need to watch Survivorman with Les Stroud. Very informative without any fake stuff.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks Stacey -- I'll check it out. The theme of my son's outing was something like "survivorman" and I wondered if there was a tie-in to something.

Guest's picture

What's funny, of course, is that with the possible exception of buying a suit those are all skills that both men and women can and frequently do both master and enjoy. And for that matter, to write with authority about since the book itself was written by a man and woman.

Actually, since the unquestionably manly Chief Sitting Bull, General Tso or even Charles Gordon would have been completely at sea in either Brooks Brothers or Ross Dress for Less even the suit-choosing business isn't essential to manliness.

Speaking as a 100% red-blooded hetero man, if I was to write such book about genuinely universal manly arts I might include a section on the manly skill of massaging your partner's sacrum, lower back muscles, ribs, and abdomen when she's cramping or of unlatching a baby when both mother and child have fallen back to sleep so you can change the inevitably-soiled diaper. You never see that in manly-man books but they're great skills that roughly 90% of men could use at some point in their lives that roughly 90% of women probably don't. And maybe something on the manly art of calming another man who hasn't figured out there are ways besides trying to pick a fight to boost his momentarily-low testosterone levels.

True, there's the problem of who'd want to read a three-chapter book... ok, four chapters since you could do one on urinal stunts. But at the end of the day there aren't a lot of other genuinely and exclusively manly things to know... that wouldn't be just as interesting and useful for women to know. (And don't get me started on all the things men could learn that are supposed to be the exclusive domain of women.)

Love the blog, by the way, and this post is great (I've known and used the steel-wool/battery trick when I was a boy but never really mastered skipping stones.) The book sounds interesting too, even though I disagree those are skills exclusive to men.


Julie Rains's picture

There are many manly-man skills in the book that I didn't mention, such as how to give advice to a male friend, when/how to have appropriate man hugs, and what to say when your wife tells her husband that she is pregnant -- the guys might especially enjoy these topics. It wasn't so easy to discuss these from my perspective so I went with the ones that made sense to me, based on my experience. Thanks for comments and ideas on what you may be interested in sharing and/or learning about.

Guest's picture

I believe I have read that Swine Flu is not transmitted by hand contact but in the air, by coughing or sneezing. Therefore, at least in this case, a handshake is not prohibited for any polite person.