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‘Would it kill you to stop doing that?’ ‘Below stairs,’ ‘What it means to be human’

WOULD IT KILL YOU TO STOP DOING THAT? A Modern Guide To Manners By Henry Alford

Twelve, 256 pp., $24.99

“Good manners don’t come naturally,’’ writes Henry Alford. “They are - for most of us, anyway - artificial: a construct.’’ Alford, whose self-deprecating wit recalls earlier generations of gentlemanly humor writers, here attempts to define, understand, and illustrate some of the materials of that construction. Kindness is part of it - “good manners means treating one another well’’ - listening is another part, and so, too, is extending oneself generously (Alford provides a list from “The Isle of Lovely Gestures’’ to help get one started).

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Despite the lists and examples, of which there are many, this is no guidebook. Readers hoping for guidance as they plan, say, a wedding in which both parties come with multiple step-parents, ex-spouses and demanding pets, will be disappointed. They would do better reading Miss Manners, who makes an appearance here as Alford meets her for tea and advice (and teaches her how to steal a taxi by walking upstream half a block). Instead, Alford offers a somewhat padded, occasionally rambling, yet nearly always charming account of his own confusion about how to act. He recounts stints as an online etiquette coach for friends, his own protocol breaches while traveling in Japan, and his work guiding tourists through New York as part of a volunteer organization called Big Apple Greeters. Perhaps Alford’s most important lesson is that we are all capable of lapses; “one of the most curious aspects of bad manners is that we almost never think that we ourselves have them,’’ Alford writes. “Other people have bad manners; we just have occasional bad days.’’

BELOW STAIRS: The Classic Kitchen Maid”s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” By Margaret Powell

St. Martin”s, 224 pp., $22.99

For those counting the days until the second season of the British television series “Downton Abbey’’ airs here in the United States, a belated Christmas gift: the 1968 memoir that helped inspire both “Downton’’ and its predecessor, Masterpiece Theatre’s “Upstairs, Downstairs,’’ has been reissued, and it’s very entertaining reading. Margaret Powell (nee Langley) was born in 1907 in Hove, a small town on England’s southern coast. Very early on, she learned to distinguish between her own social class and that of the town’s rich children, for whom she and her friends “had a kind of contempt.’’ A smart girl in a very poor family, she was made to leave school at 13 (after winning a scholarship, and despite her dreams of becoming a teacher), and enter the workforce. At 15 she left home to become a kitchen maid, one in a staff of eight servants. Upon getting the job, Powell writes, “I felt I was in jail.’’

The work was brutal - up at 5:30 to stoke the fires, scrub the stone floors, polish the brasswork, and serve the others (cook, butler, parlormaids, driver) their breakfast. Respite came only on her every-other-week day off, when she and her fellow maid would go to dances to meet boys; Powell recalls constantly hiding her hands so that they wouldn’t know she was a kitchen maid - their red, rough appearance always gave her away. Beyond its wealth of detail, the book’s real treasure is Powell’s sharp-tongued commentary on the demeaning, hypocritical caste system in which she labored. “I’ve found that employers were always greatly concerned with your moral welfare,’’ Powell writes. “They didn’t worry about the long hours you put in, the lack of freedom and the poor wages, so long as you worked hard and knew that God was in Heaven and that He’d arranged for it that you lived down below and laboured, and that they lived upstairs in comfort and luxury, that was all right with them.’’

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WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMANBy Joanna Bourke

Counterpoint, 448 pp., illustrated, $32

At the end of 2011, the federal government announced new ethics guidelines regarding the use of chimpanzees in scientific research, citing the animals’ similarity to human beings. This would be no surprise to Franz Kafka, whose fictional ape Red Peter learns to speak as a human being - only to find himself in miserable limbo between man and animal. Joanna Bourke, who teaches history at the University of London, uses Red Peter’s tale as the entry point into a philosophical thicket of almost endless complications and just as many questions: What makes humans human? Are some humans more deserving of “human rights’’ than others? (And what of the rights of other animals?)

The dividing line between those who deserve human rights and those who do not has fluctuated over time, Bourke points out, most obviously in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, but also according to ideas about religion, language, reason, and other traits considered uniquely human. For instance, the question of whether deaf people were truly human was debated throughout the 19th century. “Mute humans could never attain full humanity,’’ according to some thinkers, Bourke writes, “because they were excluded from knowledge of God. It was an argument identical to that used by missionaries faced with the godlessness of ‘savages’; in both cases, the acquisition of a European language was a crucial step in the conversion process.’’ English cartoons illustrate just how linked such issues were at the time: Working class and immigrant demands for the vote were satirized by images of an orangutan running for office. Avoiding the impenetrable prose often found in academic books, this deeply scholarly work is lively and challenging in equal measure, and rewarding throughout.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

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