It is possible, these days, to walk into a store and pick up a book on how-to virtually anything. In 10 (or three) simple steps, we can learn how to cook, raise carrots, raise kids, raise consciousness. How to make money, make love, make up and make out.

How to parent and stepparent, give birth and accept death, arrange a wedding and sue for divorce.

I've been trying to learn how-to almost as long as I can remember.

Seduced by the promise of instant answers to constant questions, I have scanned bookshelves and magazine racks, eagerly seeking the clues to outward success, inner joy and a good relationship with my mother-in-law.

For the most part I remained, as my stepdaughter would put it, "clueless."

But I didn't face the essential fallancy of how-to until I tried to learn from books and articles how to have a baby, and then how to bring one up. The books, as any mother could have told me, lie.

Labor does not follow the predictable patterns laid out in the charts. Doctors are not all as understanding as Dr. Welby or Dr. Lamaze or Dr. Spock. Babies do not arrive wrapped in freshly laundered pink and blue bundles. The books do not really tell about Caesarean sections and sitz baths and spit-up.

Life, alas, does not always go by the book. A middle-aged newspaper editor we know is distraught that the woman he has been divorced from for 10 years still cannot accept the dissolution of their marriage. "She says she always followed the rules. She did everything a good wife was supposed to to do, cooked me three-course dinners even when I came home late. She can't understand what could have gone wrong."

No doubt she read in a magazine (or was told by her mother) that the way to a man's heart was through a hot meal. And she had faith that if she followed the advice, she could expect a certain immutable sequence of events. As if wrapping up a perfect marriage requires only -- like Mirabelle Morgan -- that she come to the door wrapped in cellophane. Or the way to the executive suite is a well-chosen executive suit.

Like quickly courses in Creative Divorce, the implied false promise of how-to comes with built-in disappointment. Yet promises abound. Where there's how-to, there's always hope.

Even the pastiest young adolescent can, with effort, learn how to be that Cosmo Girl. Even the most harried housewife can hope someday to be approved by Good Housekeeping. The mere availabililty of the literature leaves us with a sense of being somehow unfinished, undone.

It demands that we do something about our situation and ourselves.

Not that we all couldn't stand a little self-improvement. But books like "How to Raise Your Child To Be a Winner" imply that we know what constitutes a loser. Like painting by number, ilt means accepting someone else's definition of what's beautiful, what's right. It means abdicating our opinions, even our values, to the experts.

Like other pregnant women, I was determined to lern how to produce a perfect baby. It never occurred to me that I could live a less-than-perfect child. Since then, I have seen enough joy in the faces of parents with imperfect children to know that the world does not come to an end for the lack of 10 perfect fingers and 10 perfect toes. And tht perfection -- like love -- is often in the eye of the beholder.

How-to does not help us learn how to accept, how to improvise, how to roll with the punches, go with the flow. It presumes a life that runs on time, without hesitation, with no time out for late planes, broken hearts, lost jobs, sudden illnesses, unsightly blemishes or unexpected guests. So it can't help up cope with imagination and humor.

In the end, it may reflect a profound inability or unwillingness to rely on our own instincts, to explore our own options.

For in running for cover in the know-how of expert advice, we forget how to ask our own questions. Eager to take the guesswork out of life, we decline to speculate, to take chances, to try. Afraid to risk the consequences of our own mistakes, we would rather rely on somebody's else's.

How-to makes the culmlination of lifetime of work and talent and training look -- like a skilled ballerina -- easy. No wonder we have come to expect instant atainment of complex human skills. No wonder we are frustrated when the doctor doesn't have a diagnosis, the politician an easy answer. Yet there would be no science or art if we did not ask questions for which there are no known answers.

I once heard of a man who learned in a how-to book how to time his barbecues by pocket computer. I pitied the man for missing the enjoyment of never knowing exactly how the dinner would turn our -- that the possibility was open for delight . . . or disaster.

I also wondered what would happen if the barbecue caught on fire, or the steak began to burn, or the computer battery went out. Would he first look in the book -- under Fire?

I suppose there are times when how-to may offer just the kind of information or comfort or reassurance that we need. But it can't hold a candle to experience, ingenuity, heredity . . . and luck.