Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Judgments on a Book’s Cover

Ruth Wajnryb

Ruth Wajnryb writes on something that concerns us all in the publishing world: book titles. We don’t agonize and argue over them for nothing: her essay from You Know What I Mean? shows the length to which titles influence her and the neighborhood around her favorite local bookstore. A linguist as well as a columnist, Ruth is always happy to dissect the words at work in a good title.

As a side note, the Book Design Review just posted its favorite book cover designs of 2008.

My local second-hand bookstore, Books On Bronte (referring to the Sydney suburb not the writers), takes full advantage of its large front window. A rapid turnaround of titles makes for pleasant gazing on my morning or evening walks with the dog. Indeed, she has learned to stop and sit patiently while I peer at the display. A recent example – there one morning, gone that evening – was How to Succeed in Business Without a Penis. The owner of the bookstore told me later that it was in the window barely a nanosecond before it was spied and snapped up.

Title-gazing certainly reinforces the power of a book’s title. I’m not discounting the other para-texts – messages transmitted via colour, texture, size, smell, typographical choices, back blurb, etc. – all collaborators in the process of impression-management. But titles do it for me. The truth is my own shelves are lined with books acquired for their titular allure alone. The day I bought the expensive hardback Khrushchev’s Shoe, I wasn’t looking for something on public speaking. But it resonated with my inner Baby Boomer – so clearly do I recall the shocked world on that day when, in the United Nations, Mr K took his shoe off and delivered his prediction (erroneous, as it turned out) that communism would bury capitalism (though, I’ve since been told by a Russian speaker, the text was poorly translated).

No doubt, if not for that shoe, his rant would have disappeared down the drain of the forgettably ordinary. Then there’s How to Visit America and Enjoy It. I’m struck by the power of the ‘and’ – the implication is that visiting and not-enjoying America is the default position, but it’s not obligatory. Subtext: buy me and find out how! A sobering lesson for a writer – never take an ‘and’ for granted. Published in 1964, this book emits a gravitational pull of nostalgia for a bygone world. A title can teach you something you didn’t know you didn’t know; then make you want to know more. Such is Edmund White’s The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris.

The back blurb tells me a flâneur is one who strolls about aimlessly, a lounger or a loafer (hence the type of shoe?). I tumble in love with the subtitle, partly for its alliterative ‘p’s, partly for the dissonance of warm-and-fuzzy (stroll) alongside hard-and-sharp (paradox). I’ve strolled in Paris but not contemplated the paradoxes. This book urges me to buy it, hop on a plane, and go stroll in said paradoxes – altogether well in excess of the price of the book. More reason, then, to buy it and live vicariously.

Some titles trick you by hopping inside your head, seeing the world momentarily through your eyes, and representing this emblematically in the title. This lends legitimacy to your ignorance while rewarding your curiosity, as with Why a Painting is Like a Pizza – a guide to modern art that allows you to find something ugly before you find it meaningful and that actively encourages you to interrogate the nature of art.

Others offer immediate comfort. I saw Bruno Bettelheim’s A Good Enough Parent when in the throes of baby-raising and in that instant of ‘phew!’, gave myself permission not to be perfect. Amazing what a load is lifted when the expectations are lowered. I’m convinced that Stanley Coren’s How to Talk Dog was titled with me in mind (linguist with new puppy). It made me pick it up and then it walked me briskly to the cashier. It’s an intelligent phrasebook – of Doggish, as distinct from doggerel – translating canine language into human terms. For example, a slow tail wag with tail at a moderate to low position means ‘don’t quite understand what’s happening but I am trying hard to get the message’.

I’m so thingy about titles that I derive great pleasure simply from browsing through them in publisher’s catalogues. I noticed one in the relatively new genre of poop-fiction: So Grotty! by J. A. Mawter, promising more than enough toilet humour to satisfy the apparently insatiable demand for same. At the other end of the seriousness continuum is the recent Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s – a title more than replete with meaning and sadness.

Certainly mystery is a factor in making a browser pick up one book and not another. Consider: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Reading Lolita in Teheran, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, In Cuba I was a German Shepherd, Fierce Invalids from Hot Climates and Leaning Towards Infinity. The last, a friend tells me, apparently has nothing to do with leaning or infinity but has an entrancing nipple on the cover. An irony about titular allure is that it too, like parenting, can be good enough. You can flâneur through a bookshop, bypass the bookas – text, and browse those titles unfettered by material constraints.

About The Author

Ruth Wajnryb

Dr. Ruth Wajnryb is the author of You Know what I Mean?: Words, Contexts and Communication (2008). Wajnryb is an applied linguist, researcher and writer, with a weekly column, WORD...

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