H. Jackson Brown Jr., who embodied the uprightness, competence and sentimentality of the all-American dad in his self-help blockbuster, “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” died on Nov. 30 at his home in Nashville. He was 81.
The death was confirmed by his son, Adam, who did not specify the cause.
Mr. Brown’s book consisted of 511 homespun commands, characteristically beginning with phrases like “Resist the temptation” and “Show respect.” They covered business (No. 34: “At meetings, resist turning around to see who has just arrived late”); conversation (No. 22: “Learn three clean jokes”); etiquette (No. 89: “Don’t let anyone ever see you tipsy”); love and friendship (No. 225: “When someone hugs you, let them be the first to let go”); the duties of the paterfamilias (No. 254: “Learn to show cheerfulness, even when you don’t feel like it”); and the pleasures of wholesome activities (No. 144: “Take someone bowling”).
From the summer of 1991, the year “Life’s Little Instruction Book” was published, to the summer of 1994, it ruled The New York Times’s “advice, how-to and miscellaneous” best-seller list. For a while it was No. 1 in paperback and hardcover simultaneously.
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee published a knock-off of Mr. Brown’s conceit in a 1998 book anticipating his campaign to be the next Republican presidential nominee. The same year, Attorney General Dan Lungren of California paraphrased Mr. Brown in a slogan while running for governor. Ross Perot exhibited a copy of the Brown book among other prized possessions at his corporate headquarters. And the slim book of advice as a genre became a publishing phenomenon, with titles like “Kitchen Wisdoms: A Collection of Savory Quotations” and “Doctor’s Little Book of Wisdom.”
Probably nobody copied Mr. Brown more than Mr. Brown himself. He wrote two sequels and 17 other “Life’s Little” books, including “Life’s Little Instruction Book for Incurable Romantics” and “Life’s Little Treasure Book of Christmas Memories.” There were mugs, tear-off calendars, screen savers and fortune cookies. By 1997, the original volume had sold about seven million copies, Publisher’s Weekly reported. It was translated into 33 languages.
The book had a fittingly innocent origin story. Mr. Brown began writing his earthy and existential tips while Adam packed for his freshman year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. When the family dropped Adam off, Mr. Brown told The Associated Press in 1992, he handed him 32 pages of advice in plastic binding bought at Walgreens.
“This is what your dad knows about living a rewarding life,” Mr. Brown recalled saying to his son. He assumed his little project had ended. But he had already written two books of listen-here-sonny adages — “A Father’s Book of Wisdom” and “P.S. I Love You” — and the small Nashville publishing house behind them caught wind of his latest text. Mr. Brown quickly transformed from a local adman into a prominent author.
Journalists and critics responding to his popularity failed to “avoid sarcastic remarks” (No. 81).
“Not since Chairman Mao has any author touched so many people with a tiny book of sayings fleshed out with lots of white space,” Tom McNichol commented in The Washington Post.
The book was “designed to teach nothing but how to part with $5.95,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill wrote.
Speaking to The Hartford Courant about his many interviews with the press, Mr. Brown speculated, “Some young liberal writers probably throw up after putting down the receiver.”
Sociologically, his audience was elsewhere. A president of three Kentucky banks loved “Life’s Little Instruction Book” so much that he bought his clients more than 2,000 copies. The book replaced his customary gift of country hams that year.
Horace Jackson Brown Jr. was born on March 14, 1940, in Nashville, and grew up there. His father was a paper goods salesman, and his mother, Sarah (Crowell) Brown, ran a dry cleaner.
Jack, as he was known, earned a bachelor’s in psychology from Emory University in 1963 and went into advertising. He met Rosemary Carleton on a blind date in 1968. (No. 213: “Don’t plan a long evening on a blind date. A lunch date is perfect.”) He later said he knew she would be his wife after five minutes. (No. 501: “Believe in love at first sight.”) They married in 1969.
After his breakout success, Mr. Brown kept a yellow pad and a mechanical pencil within arm’s reach, writing new instructions whenever they came to him. He never used computers. Page-a-day calendars with his advice continued to be manufactured until this year.
Mr. Brown and his wife divorced in 2010. In addition to his son, he is survived by a sister, Sallye Schumacher, and a grandson.
Thirty years after “Life’s Little Instruction Book” was published, Adam Brown retains a vivid sense of his father’s advice.
“Nothing in that book was new to me,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is 511 things I’ve heard thousands of times.’”
His dad said to “take someone bowling” — and Adam did, in fact, take girls on bowling dates. His dad said to “visit your city’s night court” (No. 393) — and Adam got his bedtime suspended for those trips during his boyhood.
“Overtip breakfast waitresses” (No. 7) came from their outings to Waffle House on Saturday mornings. Mr. Brown wanted his son to appreciate that to begin their shifts at 6 a.m., the servers had to wake up at 4 or 5. What sounded like an order was actually a lesson.