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Smart people know where to turn for help: to the Idiot's Guide

By Katherine Hedland '88. (From Fall 2002)

If you're looking for a blow-by-blow account of the Roman conquest and rule or a concise wrap-up of the debate over creationism, you might want to consult an idiot.

Or rather, an Idiot's Guide.

Two PLU faculty members have written popular books in "The Complete Idiot's Guide" series known for its practical, readable advice on complicated topics. Don Ryan '79 and Eric Nelson '82 have four books between them, and each is at work on another.

"We consider them textbooks for the laity," Nelson said.

Ryan, a faculty fellow in the Division of Humanities, had several Idiot's Guide books, but realized there were none available on archaeology, his specialty. He proposed one to the publisher, Alpha Books, and wrote the "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Lost Civilizations." He followed it up with guides on biblical mysteries and ancient Egypt. He's at work on another book about the world of the Bible.

Ryan suggested his colleague Eric Nelson, assistant professor of classics, propose a book about the Roman Empire. Nelson did - and it was published in 2001. He is working on a book about Ancient Greece and the Ancient Olympics, which is due to be published next summer, just in time for people to brush up before the 2004 Athens Games.

The series presents topics in an easy-to-follow, somewhat lighthearted yet informative format. Tear-out fact sheets, glossaries, a humorous touch and other features make the books easy to comprehend, without being simplistic.

"You can't dumb it down so it's condescending," Ryan said. "But you have to be authoritative. You write like you're talking to an introductory course."

They realize there is some skepticism in the academic community about books with the word "idiot" in the title, but both feel strongly that they are educating a broad audience with their volumes. Bright people might want to learn about a new subject, but be overwhelmed by jargon-filled academic journals or bored by a standard textbook. The Idiot's Guide is a perfect alternative, the authors say.

Both PLU professors' books have been steady sellers, and they have brought acclaim from experts and elicited responses from readers around the world. Critics also praise them.

KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, said Ryan's guide to Ancient Egypt was very effective. "It also establishes author Don Ryan as the first great popularizer of Egyptology in the Twenty-first Century," said a review.

James J. Clauss, professor of classics at the University of Washington, called Nelson's guide, "a clear and engaging account of ancient Rome."

Both authors say the success of their books - on what are not generally considered popular topics - shows the interest and intelligence of readers.

"People have a hunger - they want to know about the past, how it ties into the present," Nelson said.

The writing style takes some getting used to - it's hard to synthesize so much material into concise and humorous pieces, they say - but both men have developed a methodology for putting the books together. Their books are available at all bookstores including the PLU Bookstore.

"I think it's important for academics to try to raise the level of public discourse," Nelson said. "And there are many people out there who know about PLU now, because of the author bios printed on the books."

Caption: Eric Nelson, left, and Don Ryan have both authored books in the 'Idiot's Guide' series. Combining Hawaiian shirts with their doctoral caps shows the sense of humor needed in writing the books, which condense complicated subjects into easy-to-follow formats.



© Scene 2004  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Summer 2004

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