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Another Fine Mess

updated 05/22/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

What would you do if a snarling mountain lion suddenly appeared in your path? Panic? Whimper your prayers?

If you had read—and, of course, memorized—the appropriate pages in The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by David Borgenicht and Joshua Piven, the solution would be obvious: First of all, do not run away; that's guaranteed to turn you into a human scratching post. And do not crouch down. Instead, try to make yourself appear bigger—intimidate the cat by standing tall and opening your coat wide (you are wearing a coat, aren't you?). Then back away. Back away very, very slowly.

Okay, fine. You're cool with mountain lions. But what about a large, angry bear? (Do not climb a tree. Instead, lie still. If that doesn't work, fight back with whatever you can.) Or what if, like so many action heroes, you need to jump from a building into a Dumpster? (Aim for the center, try to land on your back.) Escape from quicksand? (First, it's crucial to carry a stout pole. As you start to sink, lay the pole on the surface of the quicksand; flop onto it on your back, then use it to stay afloat until you can extricate yourself.) These extreme exigencies and more are covered in the $14.95, 176-page book, which should be a boon to good people to whom really bad things happen.

Borgenicht, 31, owner of tiny Book Soup Publishing in Philadelphia, got the idea for Worst-Case Scenario in the fall of 1998 as he was lying in bed reading a magazine article about someone with no previous experience landing a plane. "I began thinking about it more," he says, "and brainstorming all the different kinds of scenarios you might want to learn."

Two months later—and with a list of 50 very nasty situations—he sold the idea to Chronicle Books in San Francisco. Then he enlisted Piven, 28, who writes technical articles for computer magazines and Web sites, and they went to work. "My initial reaction," says Piven, "was that we'd get a lot of this information from movie stuntmen, but they just told how everything is done on a soundstage." So they began asking real experts—from the U.S. Army ("How to Escape from a Sinking Car") to the Texas Agricultural Extension Service ("How to Escape from Killer Bees"). "The concept is quirky," admits Borgenicht, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife, educational consultant Suzanne Simons (who, he says, initially dismissed the book as an absurd idea), "to the extent that most of these things are not going to happen to most of us. We hope."

Published last November, Worst-Case Scenario has gone to eight printings and is a modest bestseller, climbing to No. 1 on the Los Angeles Times non-fiction paperback bestseller list and No. 29 on Amazon.com's Hot 100 chart. And already it seems to be having an effect on people's lives. California resident Kevin S. Morgan, posting on Amazon's customer-review page, says his girlfriend escaped her burning house thanks to the "How to Break Down a Door" segment. (Hint: Kicking the door is much more effective than slamming a shoulder into it.) Unfortunately, he writes, the book was lost in the fire, leaving them unprepared for such other possibilities as "How to Win a Sword Fight" or "How to Maneuver on Top of a Speeding Train and Get Inside."

One scenario the authors didn't fully anticipate was success. They have already signed up to write The Worst-Case Scenario Travel Handbook, due next spring, and The Worst-Case 2001 Survival Calendar will be in stores later this year. "We're not at a level where it is changing our lives dramatically," says Borgenicht, "but if it continues to sell like this, survival will not be an issue."

With luck, they'll need to add a segment: "How to Deal with Sudden, Unexpected Wealth."

Mike Neill
Matt Birkbeck in Philadelphia

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