Ostentatious Book Titles

Now, there’s been a trend over the last couple of decades for publishers to really bulk out the titles of books, as if the Victorian era had come back into fashion. Remember when novels were called The Memoirs of Mr John Smith Esq: A Romance in Three Parts; or One Should Not Confuse a Goat, yeah? Remember the 1880s? So do I. Well, they’re back.

I have in my possession a copy of Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 book A Bridge Too Far, which is the classic tale of the doomed Arnhem operation. It’s called A Bridge Too Far, just that. Nowadays it would be called Arnhem: A Bridge Too Far: How The Allies Tried and Failed to Shorten the War by Several Months, and indeed the most recent reprint is called A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II. At first there was just one colon, and the books were called POETIC TITLE: SHORT DESCRIPTION OF CONTENTS, but now there are two colons, and the book is called ONE WORD: POETIC TITLE: SHORT DESCRIPTION OF CONTENTS, and sometimes A NEW CLASSIC BY NAME OF AUTHOR, although that’s not part of the name. Fiction books are often NAME OF AUTHOR’S FRANCHISE: NAME OF NOVEL, you know. I often wonder if you could just stretch the name out forever, e.g. Tom Clancy Presents Tom Clancy’s Op-Centre: Book 16: A John Shadow Adventure: The End of Days: Book 4: Foxtrot and the Wild Goose: Jack Clark’s First Strike: Brainlash: The Ultimate Foe: The Two Doctors: Trial of a Time Lord: The One Where Peri Wears a Bikini: Colin Baker* and so on.

But, yeah, any more? But they have to seem organic, e.g. no obvious parodies (like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which I think was a parody of Victorian fiction, because there was a fad for that kind of thing at that time, e.g. “Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite”, all those bands with names like The 1910 Fruitgum Corporation or The Strawberry Alarm Clock etc). A shufty on Amazon.com suggests that someone called Dick Morris is the master of this, although I can’t tell if he’s a joke or not. He writes books with names like Screwed!: How Foreign Countries Are Ripping America Off and Plundering Our Economy - and How Our Leaders Help Them Do It, which I assume is about how foreign countries are ripping America off and plundering their economy, and how their leaders help them do it.

You don’t really need the rest of the book, do you? Top of page one, “America is being ripped off by foreign countries who are plundering our economy - and our leaders are helping them do it. Yours, Dick Morris”. I’m struggling to imagine the content of Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation though. Literally zombies? Are Obama Zombies a special type of zombie? Where is the liberal machine, and what does it look like? Look, you carry on, you kids. Fill up the rest of the page with brilliance. I’ve shown you the way; now carry the torch from my wizened old hands and use it to light a fire!

  • In fact this was Planet of Fire, the penultimate Peter Davison story. Shrewdly the BBC only sells it as part of a boxed set, rather than as a standalone DVD, because it’s the one where Peri etc. Those old Doctor Who DVDs are great, aren’t they? The stories are rubbish but the extraneous material is fascinating - the commentary, behind-the-scenes shots of the BBC circa 1974, lost footage and so forth.

**A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent **

A selection from my Kindle:

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter

Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture

Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way

The Secret Lives of Hoarders: True Stories of Tackling Extreme Clutter

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

E=mc[sup]2[/sup]: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation

Smallpox – The Death of a Disease: The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide Killer

The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made WordPlay More Than Some Antics [ostentatious and includes a pun!]

I could go on…and on…and on.

I’m trying to figure out what the point is here, and failing.

Yes, titles are longer these days, although it’s been a trend for many decades. It’s obvious marketing and obviously makes sense. Although the old saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover is always misused (it meant originally that you couldn’t tell how good a book was from its cover) today a book’s cover does indeed sell the book. You can pack a lot of information into a title and that offers many more selling points than a one-word title does. And in these days of search engines and keywords, longer and explanatory titles get you many more hits.

It’s a good thing for publishers, authors, and readers. Where is there any room for complaint?

OMG I thought I was the only person that this annoys the shit out of. I’ve just been too lazy to type out a post in the “Rants” thread.

I don’t need both the “poetic” title and the “short description” title. Either go with just the poetic title and make me curious or simply tell me what the damn book is about. Having both titles grates on my nerves.

Laws a-mighty! I gave up on the Colin Baker years too early.

Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media…

Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel - Why Everything You Know is Wrong

No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails-But Individuals Succeed

O, Genius! thy Name is John Stossel!

The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth

Title definitely grabs you

Maybe it’s a thread about threadshitting?

If you read the Elvish on the title page, you find out that the full title of Tolkein’s trilogy is:

***“of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Herein is set forth the history of the War of the Ring and the return of the King as seen by the Hobbits.”

James Dickey has a book of poetry titled after several of the poems within it:

The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Madness.

And yes, I typed that from memory.

An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order by myself, John Hodgman, a Professional Writer, in The Areas of My Expertise, which Include: Matters Historical, Matters Literary, Matters Cryptozoological, Hobo Matters, Food, Drink & Cheese (a Kind of Food), Squirrels & Lobsters & Eels, Haircuts, Utopia, What Will Happen in the Future, and Most Other Subjects

and while we’re on that subject can someone explain why some novels feel the need to say they’re novels?

Book X: A Novel

I usually think “Well thank goodness they told me that. I thought I was buying tuna”

“The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.”


No, but some novels are cunningly disguised as autobiographies, memoirs, collections of letters, and other things which might confuse some readers. Granted, those are often the ones least likely to include the given subtitle, but still.

Long Titles?

Ah, you’re looking for long titles. And here I was all set to nominate A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and declare victory.

For long titles, I recently read The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Also, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

Not so much long titles, but titles with lots of clauses. Like Santa Claus: The Movie, but longer. That’s another example of a redundant clause. I assume the idea was to make it sound a bit more upmarket by tying it in with Superman: The Movie, but not as upmarket as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which just sounds pretentious. Looking at the IMDB I’m surprised to learn that Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the first film to use The Motion Picture as a subtitle. And almost the last.

Of course, as the example of Dick Morris shows, the big problem is that - done poorly - overloaded subtitles become indistinguishable from each other. A kind of white noise of language. White words. And I stress done poorly. For example, Salt: A World History is the kind of book that needs a subtitle, because if it was just called Salt people would be baffled. People might assume that the book is made of salt, or has salt in it, which could have resulted in some costly lawsuits. Imagine trying to pour a book over some chips! I doesn’t work. You can’t pour a book, anyway. Not individual. You can pour a mass of books, but not one single book. Someday I should make a list of things that you can’t pour. Ivy, that’s one thing. Books. Mind’s a blank.

But it could so easily have become Salt: The Incredible Tale of How One Mineral Become Vitally Important to World Trade and Helped Cement the Foundations of Modern Society, which would have been uncouth, and unfortunate, because that book sparked off a trend of identikit cash-ins. The publishing industry is always on the look-out for a new novelty to exploit up the wazoo. Nowadays the restrained name helps it to stand out. It has a certain dignity because it was there first. Better than Salted, Salt (a cookbook), Spice, Banana, Cod, Tomatoland, Curry, Vanilla, The Guns of August, and that’s just counting the one-word titles, and The Guns of August.

Sadly no-one seems to have published Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which is 15,000 pages long. Almost every part of that title could become a lost Big Star song or track titles from a black metal album or both or neither or both.

Yeah, I was going to cite Steal This Book until I realized the long-title aspect of the responses.

Not much longer, but I’m really disappointed that Mafia! was not released under the title initially intended, Jane Austen’s Mafia!