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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Ever Pick Up a Book for Its Title?

Spring Sun, Winter Snow

A bookselling and publishing newsletter called “Shelf Awareness” comes to me every business day in my e-mailbox, brimming with the latest corporate bulletins, bookstores being opened, sold, and closed, media events scheduled, and so forth. One of SA’s regular features, “Book Brahmin,” interviews authors and asks a series of questions, such as [What’s] on your nightstand now; Favorite book when you were a child; Your top five authors; Book you’ve faked reading; Book you’re an evangelist for; etc. The format is more or less the same each time, but the feature always different depending on the interviewee.

When the question comes for the writer to name a book he or she has “bought for the cover,” however, many (most?) deny they have ever done such a thing. Even those who admit to having pretended to have a read they never read deny they have ever bought a book for its cover. I wonder what the answers might be like it they were asked about the title rather than the cover. A cover gets my attention first, but a title can really hook me in.

I thought of this today when adding another book to my “Books Read 2013” list and, glancing down the 2012 list, saw the fabulous title Why the Tree Loves the Ax, a title that still gives me shivers! Then there is A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Irresistible! (On the repellent side of the equation  are books I avoided for years because of their titles, books like Ethan Frome and Bleak House.) Also, when I look at lists of bestsellers, it sometimes seems to me that there are certain words that are magic in titles, words like stone(s), river, water, lake, road, summer, winter. Of course, there are more, and you have your own, I'm sure.

So I’m curious. Do you notice feeling different levels of attraction and repulsion to titles of books and sometimes fall under the spell of certain words in a title? Do you ever begin reading a book for its title?


BB-Idaho said...

Book by its cover?
I almost always choose by subject matter (which explains the skewness of my library). But the
cover and title of Amy Chua's World On Fire are sort of eye-catching;
since the subject concerns the
undesireable social aspects of economic globalization.
It would seem more important in
new fiction works, perhaps; the
selection of background, colors, font, artwork must be an interesting task. In a brief check
of my library shelves, I note a lot
of red and blue, very little green...and the odd thing that even
books purchased in the sixties still have their colorful dust

dmarks said...

Many times. "Bonfire of the Vanities" is just one example. Well there were othe reasons, but that wonderful title looms large.

P. J. Grath said...

WORLD ON FIRE and BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES are both great examples. (I've read the former, only bits of the latter.) Both of these, coincidentally, almost take the form that uncountable book titles use, i.e., THE [blank] OF [blank]. The title THE WINDS OF WAR comes to mind, and that makes me think that 'war' is probably a pretty good word to have in a book title, guaranteed to secure at least a moment's attention from a book browser.

Dawn said...

I'm sure I do pick a book out by the title, at least at first...then the cover...and then I look inside...but I couldn't give you an example as I haven't been to the library in oh so long. I'm sure it's much more a factor in popular fiction than in nonfiction...or...maybe not!?

P. J. Grath said...

I thought a bit about fiction/nonfiction differences in title attractiveness, Dawn, but then didn't include those musings in my post. A fair number of nonfiction titles I've read have one-word titles, followed by a colon and then a long, explanatory subtitle. BLINK and QUIET are examples that spring to mind. In general, nonfiction titles are your first preview to the book's content, and I don't think fiction titles function in that way. A good fiction title (helped by an attractive book jacket or paperback cover) makes a browser stop and pick it up and wonder what's inside, then open the book and....

Anonymous said...

Your question about choosing a book by a title stopped me this morning. I let serendipity guide me to books constantly. I live for a good title.

Immediately three came to mind. The earliest one I recall was in 1971--"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" about the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 19th century. Following that one in 1972 there was "Best and the Brightest" about Kennedy's advisers and the origins of US involvement in Viet Nam. In 1984 "Son of the Morning Star" about Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn caught my attention.

There have been dozens of others, but those were the ones I immediately thought about, so I guess they had a strong pull for me.

I know there are many fiction books I chose because of the title, but I need to cruise our bookshelves to jog my memory. Perhaps that is for a post later today.


P. J. Grath said...

Your contribution to the conversation this morning is very timely, Marjorie, with your recall of three nonfiction titles that grabbed your attention. THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST was one that our ULYSSES group thought should have been on the "Books That Shaped the Nation" list. BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE brings together emotion (heartbreak), history, and geography. SON OF THE MORNING STAR reminds me of the novel called CUSTER DIED FOR YOUR SINS, another riveting book title. Thanks! And if you come up with a list from your shelves of novels, do come back.

BB-Idaho said...

Got to thinking and looking; yes,
the book jacket design
people (group?, industry?) have annual awards. Not an Oscar, but
recognition non the less.

P. J. Grath said...

That’s a good link, BB. Thanks. For me, it’s the jacket (or cover design on a paperback) that catches my eye and the title that tells me whether or not to pick it up.

Anonymous said...

Since yesterday's post on nonfiction, I thought of some fiction titles I especially liked. The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein is the first science fiction book I read at age 11. Of course, then there is the curious and unforgettable A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Moo by Jane Smiley--the title still makes me laugh. I like titles that recall their source: I See By My Outfit by Peter Beagle. The only book I can think of that I picked up because of its cover was Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore. With its many shades of blue cover it is eye catching. Also the story is a satire about art history so how could I resist?


P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for those additions, Marjorie. I'll add another one of my own, a title David and I absolutely could not pass by: TWO CANOE GYPSIES.

I think we can agree that having all books packaged in plain brown wrappers would not be a good idea?

Dorene said...

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (though the latter is a memoir). You must post next about the worst titles!

P. J. Grath said...

Dorene, so far you're leading the pack for far-out titles. And while you're here, I think VOICES OF THE LOST AND FOUND is a darn good title.

Steve Morse said...

I read LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL when a senior in high school, and still think it's one of the most beautiful titles I've ever come across. Recently I bought a used copy of EVERY MAN DIES ALONE by Hans Fallada. Though the title immediately drew me in, I haven't yet read the book.

Kathy in Oz said...

Two that spring to mind immediately which I bought for their titles and, fortunately, liked very much are Scenes Originating in the Garden of Eden by Ann Oakley, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In fact, after reading the latter we both decided we would like to go and have a look at Savannah, Georgia one day and are hoping to go there finally on our next trip out of Australia, hopefully next year. Seems I am drawn to the word "garden" in a book title, although I hadn't thought of that before.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Steve and Kathy--thanks for your additions to the growing list. Steve, the title EVERY MAN DIES ALONE reminded me of a used book I bought for the title many years ago called WE DIE ALONE. It was a gripping World War II tale and was out of print at the time but has since been reissued. I wonder if 'die' or 'dying' or 'death' is a magic word in titles.

'Garden' certainly must be, Kathy. The children's book THE SECRET GARDEN is the first one I thought of after reading your comment, but I'm sure a long list could be generated from that word alone. And Savannah, by the way, is definitely worth visiting. Its gardens could charm one for an entire lifetime, I'm sure.

Valerie Trueblood said...

I ran across the title WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD, immediately ordered the novel, and discovered the hypnotized characters of Barbara Comyns and the fine new press Dorothy A Publishing Project.

I began to love science fiction as a child, when I thought it was all true. I haven't reread John Cross's THE ANGRY PLANET in years, but the title still evokes The Terrible Ones who were on that planet.

Science fiction writers are great with titles. Terry Bisson's BEARS DISCOVER FIRE: who could resist that?

Short stories, in particular, often seem to have sprung full grown out of their names. Chekhov's "Story without an End," Delmore Schwartz's "The Child Is the Meaning of this Life," Lydia Davis's "The House Behind," Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider." And Paul Bowles's "The Frozen Fields," John Haskell's "Dream of a Clean Slate," Lydia Millet's "Love in Infant Monkeys." One could go on and on.


For pure beauty I agree with Steve about LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL.

Kathy said...

Have chosen many books just for the title. Many books just for the cover. Many books just for the content. Can't recall a single name right now except the current book I'm reading "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" which is delightful and was passed around at our book club. The cover art is the best. I would have chosen it just for that.

P. J. Grath said...

Valerie, you’ve really enlarged the field with short story titles. I think immediately of “The Rocking Horse Winner,” which was one of my early favorites, along with “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” But then, I was a horse-crazy girl and may have been drawn to the titles for that irrelevant reason.

Something this evening made me think of the play title, “The Little Dog Laughed.” Isn’t that a scary title? If our dogs could laugh, wouldn’t that just be the end of us?

Kathy, I haven’t read the MAJOR PETTIGREW book, but I know it’s been very popular. Did your book club talk about the book at all, or were you the only one who’d read it?

At present I’m a little over halfway through A LESSON BEFORE DYING. It is such a strong, powerful, moving book, every bit as compelling as its title.

P. J. Grath said...

Okay, I have to come back to direct you to a related post on book cover design on Loreen Niewenhuis's blog:

I also want to note that Valerie's last short story collection had the fabulous title MARRY OR BURN.

Kathy said...

Pamela, at the end of book club we pass around books that other people have enjoyed. My friend, Ruth, had really liked the Major and passed it on. It's very British humor. What I like about this one is that I'm learning the benefit of being a pessimist--or a realist--and falling in love with the main character who is really endearing.