Saturday, December 6, 2008

Best. Book. Title. Ever.

A couple of days ago, blogger Bittersweet Girl noted with chagrin that her working title had been swiped out from under her. This sucks, because as one commenter noted, coming up with a good title is hard. My own working title is the fourth iteration (if you count my dissertation title), and the only one that doesn't totally suck. Even so, it's only good, not great.

This got me thinking about really great academic book titles. For me, these have to meet three tests:

1. They should meet the "book spine test": the title, sans descriptive subtitle, should be short enough to fit well on a book spine, and should be intriguing enough to make a browser pick it out and actually look at the covers, front and back, to see what the book is about.

2. They should be more or less obviously related to the topic of the book. You need not be able to tell what the book is about from the title (again, sans descriptive subtitle), but once you know the topic, the title should make perfect sense.

3. They should have a hook -- for me, this means either witty, or evocative. For example, Donald Worster's Dust Bowl meets criteria #1 & 2, but not 3. His Rivers of Empire, on the other hand, falls into my "great titles" category.

My colleague, an environmental historian, suggests Richard White's The Organic Machine. For my money, I go for something outside of my field, a study of disease in early America called Pox Americana (which some, admittedly, may find too cute by half, but it tickles me).

Other suggestions for favorites? Remember, we're talking here about the title before the colon. And it need not be a great book; just a great title.

7 comments:

Anastasia said...

my favorites (all the bit before the descriptive subtitle)

Augustan Culture

Vergil's Empire

The Production of Space

Democracy Matters

last but not least, I think Orientalism is a stellar title.

Susan said...

The Cheese and the Worms.

Vermeer's Hat

Dr. S said...

I *LOVE* "The Secret Life of Puppets." I had a friend once who told me that he hated that that writer had used that title, because she hadn't done it justice. My verdict is out.

Henrik said...

Worldly Goods

The History Enthusiast said...

I have read all those books that you mentioned! I think my favorite title of those is Pox Americana.

Here are a few of my other favs...

Many Thousands Gone (Ira Berlin)

Nature's Metropolis (William Cronon)

Righteous Discontent (Evelyn Higginbotham)

Auto Ethnographer said...

Friction (Tsing)

The Comforts of Home (White)

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Oh, thanks for posting about this. I am inspired by your criteria as I begin the arduous task of trying to reconstruct my title. I think you are right that the main title needs to be able to convey a lot of meaning. I hate academic titles that are meaningless without the descriptive subtitle. Just glancing at my bookshelf, here's an example of a bad title: "Awaiting the Heavenly Country." You know it's a quote right? But, what's the book about?: heaven? religious nationalism? waiting? I think using a quote for the main title is generally a disaster.

Here's one that I'm liking right now, although it doesn't really specify the book topic -- it's still intriguing, plus a great non-use of punctuation: "Graphs Maps Trees." I wish I had the balls to try a title like that.