JUDGING THE TITLE OF A BOOK by Mishkat Bhattacharya

December 12, 2016

Reading books is, of course, a widespread hobby. Let’s consider, briefly, a lesser known hobby, which involves reading only the titles of books. Just like books, book titles can be broadly classified into two categories. Some of them are interesting, while others are so dull that they make you look forward to going to the DMV. Let us look at some examples from that first category.

One type of interesting book title is that which encapsulates a paradox. Some fine examples are The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera), All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr), and How to be Both (Ali Smith). Sometimes the title includes a gentle explanation, which may give out just enough clarity without compromising on the allure of the original paradox. A good instance is All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (Jennifer Senior). The subtitle reveals what the book is about, but not fully. It makes me curious about why parenthood is no fun – or maybe I should just ask my parents? Further examples of this kind of book title are not hard to find; for complete customer satisfaction, I advise enjoying the paradox for a full moment before moving on to the explanatory subtitle – Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Slavoj Zizek), Remembering the Future: The Path to Recovering Intuition (Colette Baron-Reid), and Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency (Patrick Buchanan).

Another type of interesting book title is one that is posed as a question. For example: What Do You Care What Other People Think? (Richard Feynman), Can You Sue Your Parents For Malpractice? (Paula Danziger), and Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? (Steven Tyler, yes he of Aerosmith fame). As in the previous title-type, sometimes the question can be followed by an illuminating qualification: Does This Mean You Will See Me Naked? : Field Notes From a Funeral Director (Robert Webster), What Did I Do Wrong? What to Do When You Don’t Know Why the Friendship Is Over (Liz Pryor), and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns (Mindy Kaling).

A third interesting type is where the title gives a strong and direct reference to what could be in the book. To those who are sympathetic to the indicated subject matter, the title then clearly points the way to something interesting. For example, Around the World in Eighty Days (Jules Verne) is clearly a travelogue of some sort, unless the author happens to be a devilish prankster. Likewise, The Old Man and The Sea (Ernest Hemingway) is probably an ocean adventure, at any rate to those not prone to double-guessing. And War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy) is likely to be about, well, war and peace. But the titles of classics are tricky to judge fairly, as they are already in circulation in the popular culture. Fortunately, there are plenty of lesser known works, which can be cited as examples as well. I will not mention any of them, because no one likes to be named as the author of a lesser known work.

Yet another interesting category includes titles of fictional books. These books were never written, which makes them difficult to read, but their titles are completely bona fide, since they are every bit as fascinating as the titles of real books. In this category of fictional book names, the name of the equally fictional author is critical to driving the title home: The Insurmountable Problem (Major Setback), Cooking Spaghetti (Al Dente), and Let’s Play Billiards (A. Q. Ball)…further delectable examples include Hot Dog! (Frank Furter), Parachuting (Hugo First), and Leo Tolstoy (Warren Peace).

Closely related is the type of title which contains outright puns. Some examples include Eats, Shoots and Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! (Lynne Truss), Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball (R. A. Dickey), and I Still Miss my Husband, But My Aim is Improving (Sarah Shankman).

The types of book titles enumerated above clearly constitute only a partial list, which can easily be extended further by the reader, who is also welcome to invent her or his own titles. If it turns out that a title has not been used before, then it only remains to write the book. If, on the other hand, the title has already been used, well then, at least the reader got the title right. In any case, the main purpose behind presenting the list was to drive home the fact that reading book titles is an entertaining and efficient exercise that allows anybody to talk about books without having read them. Indeed, the total number of books ever published in the world is about one hundred and thirty million. Any one of us will likely be able to read only a small fraction of this number; we can probably read many more titles than we can read books. Evidently, the reading, evaluation, and invention of book titles needs to be encouraged further as a perfectly respectable hobby.

Mishkat Bhattacharya is an Assistant Professor of Physics at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York, a place on earth that has three seasons: almost winter, winter, and…still winter.


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