A number of years ago Mort Walker, the cartoonist, gave me a pencil sketch of one of his Beetle Bailey comic strips. It shows the character Plato, the strip's intellectual, talking to Zero, the strip's dolt. They are putting some of Plato's books on a shelf, and Zero asks if Plato has read them all. Yes, mostly, Plato says. What's in them?, Zero wonders. Plato replies, "All the knowledge of the past on which we can base our actions in the future." And Zero asks, "What if some of the pages get stuck together?"

It's a good question, and a chilling one for a person like me, who believes deeply in the power of handbooks—who has faith, in other words, that any subject can be distilled into compact and accessible form. Lose a few pages from the manual Crime Scene Investigation and you may never know how to make a plaster cast of a water-filled footprint, or how to read erased writing by using ultraviolet light. Lose a few pages of The French Foreign Legion: A Guidebook to Joining, and you may learn too late that the words you'll most often be hearing in the Foreign Legion include "Ferme ta gueule" ("Shut your face") and "Démerdez-vous" ("Get yourselves out of the shit").

It's a commonplace to observe that as the world becomes more complex, it also becomes harder to comprehend. But I'm not sure this is actually true. The "why" questions (Why are we alive? Why do bad things happen to good people?) haven't really changed since hominids became sentient, whereas more and more of the "how" questions have long since been addressed. Nearly 10,000 books in print in English begin with the words "How to": How to Stay Alive in the Woods. How to Triumph Over Temptation. How to Marry Rich. How to Study the Bible. How to Talk to Your Cat. But there are even more. A book called The Los Alamos Primer explains how to build an atomic bomb. A new one called The Importance of Being Lazy provides instruction in doing nothing. As new situations arise, new handbooks arise to meet them. The corporate malfeasance of recent years has left scores of executives facing criminal charges and the prospect of time behind bars. They can now avail themselves of Andy Borowitz's Who Moved My Soap?: The CEO's Guide to Surviving in Prison. (One chapter is titled "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Prisonersª.") Last spring, as war approached in the Persian Gulf, bookstores in Kuwait reported brisk sales of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Iraq. People who want to live "off the grid," disconnected from the conventional social infrastructure, have a wide variety of advisory options, from How to Steal Food From the Supermarket to The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving. Pessimists (or maybe just pragmatists) can consult several volumes of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, and be prepared in the event they need to fend off a shark ("hit the shark's eyes or gills, which are the areas most sensitive to pain") or perform an emergency tracheotomy ("if neither a straw nor a pen is available, use stiff paper or cardboard rolled into a tube").

I've been giving particular thought to handbooks in recent weeks because a friend called my attention to one of the finest exemplars of the genre—the U.S. Army Ranger Handbook, published by the Ranger Training Brigade, at Fort Benning, Georgia (and available through Amazon). The handbook pulls no punches when it comes to stating the ambitious aims of the Ranger school: "Perhaps its greatest contribution is to create a climate of relatively high stress and deprivation." The Ranger Handbook is the Boy Scout Handbook on steroids; to the familiar lore on map-reading and fire-starting add such how-tos as "Knock Out a Bunker," "Breach a Mined Wire Obstacle," and "React to Air Attack." The chapter titled "Evasion/Survival" is a masterpiece of utilitarian opportunism: "Blood, which contains salts and nutrients, is a good base for soups." "The marrow in bones is a rich food source. Crack the bones and scrape out the marrow, and use bones to make weapons." The insights of yesteryear retain their relevance; fittingly, the Ranger Handbook ends with the full set of "Standing Orders" issued by Major Robert Rogers to Rogers' Rangers in 1759, during the French and Indian War. They include:

No. 1—Don't forget nothing.

No. 2—Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute's warning.

No. 3—When you're on the march, act the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer. See the enemy first.

No. 11—Don't ever march home the same way. Take a different route so you won't be ambushed.

Many of the world's great literary forms are relatively recent. The English sonnet emerged in the sixteenth century, the epistolary novel in the eighteenth, the solipsistic memoir in the twentieth. But you can find recognizable versions of the handbook back at the dawn of civilization. Sun Tzu's The Art of War is more than 2,000 years old. Handbooks for horse trainers survive from the time of the Hittites. The Egyptians have left us some rather odd first-aid manuals. The Kama Sutra goes back to the fourth century A.D., and sex handbooks have been almost as plentiful as cookbooks ever since. By now the various genres of handbook share a certain basic sensibility, a certain plucky straightforwardness. An interesting experiment would be to mix and match the subjects and authors: imagine if the writer of the owner's manual for a VCR were asked to reconceive The Joy of Sex, or if Dr. Phil were asked to explain how to maintain a mountain bike.

Thematically, some very modern handbooks have an aroma of great antiquity about them, harking back to the famously fierce days of the Hittites and the Babylonians. In the late 1990s reporters for the Baltimore Sun obtained and published portions of the CIA's Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual—a handbook for torturers. States that mete out the death penalty have drawn up protocols detailing exactly how executions should be performed. (From Utah's firing-squad protocol: "The offender is dressed in a dark blue outfit with a white cloth circle attached by Velcro to the area over the offender's heart.") The protocols may go so far as to mandate who is required to witness the execution, when they are to arrive, and where they are to sit. Whether they stipulate a specific menu for those in attendance, I can't say. "What was surprising to me was the cold cuts and the drinks," one witness to an Arizona execution told The Wall Street Journal.

Providing a buffet for the witnesses at an execution epitomizes the friendly American can-do spirit that animates the culture of handbooks. And it is, by and large, an American culture. Operating manuals and practical handbooks can be found everywhere, of course, but nowhere with as much abundance and diversity as here, where all challenges are tackled with a presumption that mastery is possible. Problems are broken down into components and then sorted, analyzed, and solved. At its most reductionist this process ultimately yields rules of thumb or universal "laws"—the literature is full of them. Pudder's Law: "Anything that begins well will end badly." Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is crap." Allen's Axiom: "When all else fails, read the instructions." These may not exactly be what the Founders had in mind when they looked forward to "a government of laws, and not of men," but Benjamin Franklin, the author of Poor Richard's Almanack, one of the great handbooks of practical wisdom, would certainly have understood.

In America the handbook approach even extends to political obligation. I don't know whether the Hittites or the Babylonians ever composed citizenship manuals, but the U.S. government makes available to immigrants seeking citizenship a handbook on American history and politics that is fuller and sharper than most high school textbooks. It comes with a glossary that includes not only terms you'd expect ("commander in chief," "freedom of religion") but also such pertinent concepts as "trying times," "assassinate," and "overconfident." The answers to the sample test questions accompanying the text are more nuanced than one might expect. To the question "What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?" comes the answer "Freed many slaves." The "many" is a surprising but accurate touch: the Proclamation freed only slaves in states that had taken up arms against the federal government. Whoever composed the test was an unabashed realist. The proposed answers to "Name one benefit of being a citizen of the United States" say nothing about breathing the sweet air of liberty, but one of the correct responses is this: "Petition for close relatives to come to the U.S. to live." Finally, one has to admire the way the "sample sentences for written English testing" subtly reinforce a Calvinist ethic: "I go to work every day." "You work very hard at your job." "You drink too much coffee."

As they begin to shape a new constitution and establish democratic institutions, American advisers in Iraq would do well to consult this handbook for prospective U.S. citizens—it may provide some useful ideas. The situation, of course, is likely to be volatile and unpredictable, and for that reason I'd also suggest that they keep another handbook close by—the one with Colonel Rogers's standing orders at the end. They should pay particular attention to No. 2.