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Title for its Times

We’ve dealt with the titling of books in various places on DPP, most broadly here, and with that in mind we’ll take note of catchy, meaningful, and clever titles as they come into view.

We came across this little winner the other day. The book, by Nomi Prins, is titled It Takes a Pillage. It’s subtitle: “Behind the Bailout, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street.” The book came out last September from Wiley. Before picking up a pen, Ms. Prins was a managing director at Goldman Sachs and ran the international analytics group at Bear and Stearns in London. She ought to know her subject. Classy title, both in its side-ways reference to another book, written by another prominent lady, to which this one is a kind of anti-book, thus on the other side of the coin. We’ll keep a lookout for other titles that catch our eyes and frame them here briefly. This one would get, we’d guess, a least four stars for theme, wit, and punch. We haven’t read the book; but this post is about titles after all


The Blurb

A quick note on the blurb—originally intended as a rounding out of “Titles.” But we were a bit rattled by seeing readers on this site. As we’ve already noted, the distinction between title and blurb is fuzzy, especially as we march back in time or consider very cleverly titled books and those that manage to turn the title into a blurb. The main distinction is that the blurb isn’t written by the editors or the author but by friends induced to high-flown praise by various stratagems like, “If you blurb my opus, I’ll blurb yours.”

For an authoritative take on blurbs, not least a wonderfully brief but effective example of one, we once more turn to Roy Blount Jr.’s Alphabet Juice, a book that must be open at your side if you even hope to be witty about books, words, or phrases. (Now that last would count as a blurb if The Editors of Dwarf Planet Press amounted to a hill of beans in the Kingdom of Celebrity—which, alas, they don’t.) In any case, Roy informs us under the entry titled “blurbs” that the word was coined by Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), a humorist, sort of in the Ogden Nash category. Here’s a sample:

My Feet

My Feet they haul me Round the House,
They Hoist me up the Stairs;
I only have to Steer them, and
They Ride me Everywheres!

Roy reports—and this is something of a blurb about a blurb within a blurb—about his own most highly rated…blurb.  He says:

In his book-talk blog on nytimes.com, Dwight Garner actually gave one of my old blurbs, for Peter Dexter’s Paris Trout, a rave: “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen words of praise as insanely great as … ‘I put it down once to wipe off the sweat.’ Do they give awards for that kind of thing? No, they don’t. [p. 38]

We might apply Paul Rodriguez’s comment about titles here and suggest that the talents that produce the insanely great books may not be the same that produce the insanely great blurbs. “Insanely great?” We think that that phrase was coined by Steve Jobs and applied to just about every new product Apple Computer ever brought to market. 

The Titling of Imagined Books

The King in Yellow (1895), a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, concerns a fictional closet play itself entitled The King in Yellow, which drives all its readers mad. Chambers was hyperbolizing the decadence of the Yellow Nineties—a nameless “yellow book” turns up in the hands of Dorian Gray. But the very idea of inventing portentous titles for fictional books caught on with the next generation of horror writers—particularly H. P. Lovecraft, to whom we owe such evocative titles as the Book of Eibon and Von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, besides the most famous of all titles without books, the terrible Al-`Azif of the mad Arab `Abd ul-Alhazred—better known by the title of its Greek translation, Necronomicon—which has the unique distinction, among imaginary books, of having been written several times over.

From Lovecraft and others the game of titles without books was picked up by Borges, who not only invented unwritten books (like The Garden of Forking Paths) but reviewed some of them—like The Approach to Mu`tasim. Through Borges the game entered the mainstream of literature. (Of course there were forerunners—Thomas Browne (in Musaeum Clausum), Thomas Urquhart (in Logopandecteision), Laurence Sterne (in Tristram Shandy)—but all traditions have their forerunners.) Its numerous players were formerly catalogued by a website called The Invisible Library—a casualty of the recent disappearance of GeoCities, now itself only a title. The Wikipedia has its own list, including science fiction’s famous reference works—the Encyclopedia Galactica of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in Douglas Adam’s homonymous series.

The art of titling books, we see, is distinct from the art of writing books. Some authors think up titles first, write books second; but good titles, besides inspiring an author, can compel a reader’s interest on their own, even without a book to read. Look over a list of fictional books and consider how fully the atmosphere, genre, and contents of an entire book can be suggested by nothing more than a title and a name. Certainly real books deserve as much attention. And the game of imaginary books may be a useful exercise for the writers of real ones. Short stories gave writers plenty of opportunities to practice the art of the title; but most books these days are titled by someone who has only ever invented a handful of titles. Imaginary books are a chance to practice. And it gives a standard to judge titles by: if this book did not exist, what title would suffice to suggest it?

Author: Paul M. Rodriguez – pmr@ruricolist.com

German-speaking readers might feel offended by the ungrammatical Unausprechlichen Kulten. That’s not a typo, however. Lovecraft had help producing that title, and the help was, you might say, not altogether competent. Grammatical equivalents would be Von Unausprechlichen Kulten or Unausprechliche Kulten.

Quote Unquote

Quotes regarding titles are not exactly numerous, meaning quotes about the titles of books and other works of art. The reason for that is that what few quotes one finds are about titles of nobility.  Yes, people also like to put labels on themselves, and the more resounding and the more widely recognized the better—which produces the irony that royalty is so popular in this Land of Equality. This reminds us of a ditty—sorry, but we can’t find the source (maybe somebody out there can help?):

People will grab for any halo
That lends some glory to their ego
Up, up and away
Not flowers—a bouquet
The duo’s good, the solo’s better.

We were almost ready to give up when we stumbled across a nice quote in a genuinely fun book entitled Alphabet Soup (Sarah Crichton Books, 2008). The author is Roy Blount Jr. The book is about words and phrases and is arranged alphabetically. Under “Titles” we found this little poem by the author written about a 1941 movie:

On Renting I Wake Up Screaming, For the Title, And Being Let Down, by the Movie

Blonds who don’t go far enough,
Film that isn’t noir enough.

The author further comments on this perennial theme—namely the title that doesn’t deliver—by complaining: “And in the entire film, nobody wakes up screaming.

I am a Camera … Magazine



Apogee Photo Magazine


Pixiport Art Photography


Various unrelated things came together recently to inspire today’s post. First, we’ve been thinking about covers and titles over the last two weeks. Second, we were listening to a recent interview with Samir Husni, a.k.a. Mr. Magazine on NPR’s radio program “Here and Now.” Third, we were perusing the magazine racks at our local Borders store—where the vast number of magazines related to photography, digital imaging, and the visual arts generally struck us. Finally, there was that not-quite-realized intention to title these posts on titles using, well, famous titles, and the title of a 1951 play by John Van Druten bubbled to the surface: I am a Camera. The play was also made into a movie in 1955 and starred Julie Harris, Laurence Harvey, and Shelley Winters.

We live in a World of the Image. Images are used to attract attention, convey information and communicate with us on many levels. As our ability to create and mass-produce images has increased, it is only natural that interest in how this is done has increased as well.

Digging deeper into the subject, we discovered that magazines dedicated to photography and digital imaging don’t really make up a particularly large category in the overall magazine publishing industry when measured by number of titles per category.

In a ranking of 280 categories of magazines, Photography is 86th, well below such categories as Music & Music Trends, Nursing, and Agriculture & Agricultural Supplies. Even the category of Poetry & Creative Writing ranked 26th in the list. The list itself—compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and available here—is quite interesting and may well inspire further study and discussions here at Dwarf Planet Press.

For example, the category Science Fiction and Fantasy came in 124th on the list, ahead of Books & Book Trade but far behind Needlework & Knitting…

Shutterbug photo thanks to


We thank Amazon.com for the photo of Aperture.

A Glimpse Back at the Titulus

Our word, title, has extraordinarily exalted as well as very banal connotations. The word itself derives from the Latin titulus, meaning inscription. The most famous Roman titulus, once known to all, not just Catholics, is the abbreviation INRI shown affixed at the top of the crucifix. We are told that this abbreviation stood for IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM, or “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.” We note that the search for this particular titulus is still on-going and claims that it has been found keep erupting. It is nice to know that continuity with the ancient past … continues, as it were, beneath the cyber-world’s surface. In any case, the Romans carved inscriptions in stone to mark boundaries and, like all ancient peoples, also celebrated the feats of the greats and, in the graveyards, the memories of those whose descendants could afford the labor of a stone carver.

At the other extreme, we have evidence from obscure sources that tituli were used in ordinary commerce to label goods—thus an ancient one dated back to 26 A.D. announces “Alban wine bottled by Gamus, the freedman.” If you have the patience, consult this source. This sort of title, always severely abbreviated, was affixed to pottery—as shown in the image we reproduce here from Wikipedia. These very brief marks, which don’t communicate to the uninitiated, remind us of ISBNs. They were intended for internal record keeping, obviously, not to attract the trade. Titling always has had, obviously, multiple purposes.

Not surprisingly, therefore, functionally titles were labels—not least on books. An interesting early example of short titles—short of necessity—is illustrated in an engraving produced from a bas-relief. The picture is in the personal collection of Alberto Manguel and reproduced in his book A History of Reading, which we here reproduce in a shaky photograph.  It shows name tags hanging from Roman scrolls stored on a shelf—and suggesting that, once upon a time, short titles were removable. You had to open the scroll to learn a little more. In the days of scrolls, of course—not a mass-produced item—the commercial role of the title as an attractor had not yet surfaced. That came with the rise of movable type.

The Long Title of Ghulf Genes

We requested of our author that he supply us with a long title, in the manner of the seventeenth century, for the first novel in the Symphony in Ghulf Major trilogy, and he obligingly contributed the following:

G H U L F  G E N E S …:
The Tale of a Family that Managed to Stumble on
A Substance that enabled any two little old Ladies to lift a Grand Piano
As if it were a Laundry Basket
Lead to Tulips on MARS and Gas Sucking Ships around VENUS
Which is to say that thus began, NOT ended, the great Reach of
Whose later exploits produced enormous Wonders and Discoveries,
Also Anguish, Trouble, and Trauma,
Tales of Love,
And vast Transformations at Home and Abroad—
The revelation of the details of which
Would rob the eager Reader
Of much Delight and deprive Him and especially Her
Of that sad Feeling, at the End,
That, sigh and alas, it is All Over—
Only, of course, it Isn’t…