The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (P.S.)

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Are Run-On Subtitles Literature’s New Flop Sweat?

1.
While writing my very first blurb recently – it was for an old friend’s new book about the creation of America’s interstate highways – I was delighted to discover that this otherwise very strong piece of work had just two weak points.  One was the title, The Big Roads, which strikes me as a big snore.  The other was the subtitle, a panting pileup of purplish prose: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

Suddenly, every time I walked into a bookstore or read a review, I started noticing similarly breathless subtitles. What had struck me initially as an unfortunate decision by the publisher of The Big Roads now began to look like a full-blown trend. Two books in particular fed this dawning revelation – Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost At Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them; and Man Down!: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fun Managers, and Just About Everything Else.

After discovering dozens of run-on subtitles, I naturally began to wonder what was at work here.  My initial theory was that this sudden gush of wordiness is a natural by-product of book publishing’s desperate times.  In a marketplace glutted with too many titles – and in a culture that makes books more marginal by the day – publishers seem to think that if they just shout loudly enough, people will notice their products, then buy them.  In other words, the run-on subtitle is literature’s equivalent of flop sweat, that stinky slime that coats the skin of every comedian, actor and novelist who has ever gotten ready to step in front of a live audience knowing, in the pit of his stomach, that he’s going to bomb.  But when I asked around, my flop sweat theory started to hold less and less water.

2.
John Valentine co-founded The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., more than thirty years ago.  Since then he has helped build it into a beloved cultural institution in the so-called “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, where there just might be more writers per-capita than in any other place on the planet outside select zip codes in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“I’d say about three years ago I started noticing more words on covers, more buzzwords,” Valentine told me when I dropped by the shop recently.  When I ran my flop sweat theory past him, he shook his head.  “I think it’s driven by Search – with a capital S – whether it’s Google or Amazon or whatever.  A lot of our customers hear about books on NPR, and when they come in the store they can’t always remember the author or the title.  The more words a customer might remember, the more keywords we can use to Google it.  If a word is rather unique, we’re more likely to find it.  With the river of books – with the river of everything – most people want to have more unique words associated with their product.”

Most people, maybe, but not all people.  Valentine has noticed another trend running counter to the run-on subtitle.  “The converse of it,” he says, “is publishers and authors who feel confident.  They tend to go small.”  He waved at several examples on a shelf near the front of the store – Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer-Prize winner Stacy Schiff; Just Kids by Patti Smith, which won a National Book Award; Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan; Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III; and Life by Keith Richards.  It doesn’t get much more concise than that.  Maybe It by Stephen King.

And there are exceptions to Valentine’s theory.  Simon Winchester, who scored a major hit in 2005 with The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, has just published Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories.  Maybe Winchester simply believes in sticking with a winning formula.  Tina Rosenberg, who has won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, is out with Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.

While not overly wordy, Rosenberg’s subtitle falls into what I call the “Tao of How” category – books that promise to show us how the world really works, and how we can use that knowledge to transform our humdrum lives into epic experiences full of bliss, friends, great sex, wisdom and/or bags of money.  Recent efforts include Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think and Do by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler; and Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

3.
While working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Eamon Dolan bought the concept that eventually became The Big Roads.  Dolan, who has since become vice president and editor-in-chief at The Penguin Press, contends that verbose subtitles have always been with us and probably always will be.  He also believes that subtitles have become an especially valuable marketing tool in our digital age, echoing John Valentine’s theory.

“I’d say that subtitles are important enough to the success of a nonfiction book that hardly any such book is published without one,” Dolan said in an e-mail.  “Traditionally (and still), the subtitle explicitly states the book’s subject and purpose and implicitly tries to signal who its audience is.  In the 21st century, the subtitle has a more pointed intent as well – to offer keywords that might come up in web searches.  While we do not design subtitles with this particular goal in mind, it is a use that suggests subtitles are as essential now as ever they were.”

Dolan doesn’t believe you can judge the effectiveness of a subtitle merely by looking at its length.  Some pithy ones are perfect, he contends, while a long freight train can be just as effective.  To prove his point, Dolan cites the very different subtitles on two books he edited.  “A favorite subtitle of mine right now is the one for Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Its lyricism, clarity and faux-grandiosity beautifully and efficiently convey the book’s ambitious scope and endearing tone.  Often the author, editor, publisher, et al, brainstorm and/or wrangle at length over titles and subtitles, but these came directly from the author even before the manuscript was complete.  And we knew right away that we couldn’t improve on them.  Brevity is often a goal in this realm because shorter subtitles enter the mind more readily and are easier to incorporate into a jacket design.”

That said, he added, “Another of my favorite subtitles is an exception that proves the rule.  Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis was subtitled Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players.  It’s double-wide, to be sure, but it earns every inch of the real estate it takes up.  I love how its two halves rub against each other in a way that sparks a reader’s interest.  How could such lofty qualities as heartbreak, genius, etc., arise in such a nerdy arena as a Scrabble contest?  To me, and to many, many other readers, this has proven an irresistible question.”

That sweaty wrestling match Dolan describes – the author, editor, publisher, et al, locked in a room wrangling over potential titles and subtitles – is familiar to most authors of non-fiction books, and to more than a few writers of fiction.  But when Malcolm Jones, a culture writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, was getting ready to publish a memoir, the wrestling match was fairly painless.  “On my book, we – I think this discussion finally involved my editor, agent and wife – we tried a subtitle but it just sounded like a second title,” Jones said by e-mail.  “So we figured we’d label it ‘a memoir’ and let people work it out.  This, of course, resulted in the stampede of sales.”  The book’s cover is elegant in its simplicity, just the words Little Boy Blues: A Memoir and a photograph of the author at the age of 10 or so, reading a newspaper and pretending to smoke an unlit pipe, the picture of future literary sophistication.  It echoes the beautiful economy of the cover of Experience: A Memoir by Martin Amis, which shows the author as a tow-headed pre-teen with a scowl on his face and a cigarette clenched between his lips.  That scowl and that cigarette leave no doubt that this is one bad, bad lad.

Why is such gorgeous restraint the exception in contemporary publishing?  “I’m tempted to go with your flop sweat theory,” Jones says.  “Having made the initial error to publish way more than they should, publishers cravenly attempt at the last minute to adorn their hundreds of titles with some sham distinction in the baseless hope that, yes, this will attract a reader or two.  Or maybe some of it has to do with playing to the computer’s power to aggregate.  I wish this were more far-fetched than it sounds.”

4.
Which brings us, finally, to Earl Swift, my friend who wrote The Big Roads.  He describes the creation of the book’s title and subtitle not as a wrestling match but as a “collaborative process” between himself, his editors and the publishing house’s marketing people.  In the end, they agreed on a title that they felt was less opaque and more self-explanatory than the dozens of possibilities they’d bounced back and forth.

“Some publishers go for short titles so that you can stack the words vertically on the cover,” says Swift, the author of three previous non-fiction books.  “That allows you to go with bigger type and give the book more visual impact.  But some short titles are so obscure or general that they require amplification.”

When it came time to compose a subtitle that would help readers understand what The Big Roads was about, Swift said his main goal was to debunk a common misconception.  “I thought we had to telegraph to potential readers that they don’t know the story as well as they think they do.  You say ‘interstate highways’ and most people immediately think ‘Eisenhower.’  So I thought we had to signal that the people responsible for those highways are people you’ve probably never heard of.”

And so it came to pass that author and publisher agreed on a subtitle that might have once sounded breathless to me but, on second thought, actually does accomplish what it set out to do.  It alerts readers to the fact that our interstate highways did not pop fully formed out of Dwight Eisenhower’s vacuous skull.  For that reason, among many others, I hope the book sells faster than Krispy Kremes.

(Image: Untitled from joost-ijmuiden’s photostream)

Staff Picks: Winchester, Scrabble, Byron, Dumas, Irving, Christensen

The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester recommended by AndrewThe subtitle says it all: “A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary”. In this engaging slice of history (with a narrower focus than his later The Meaning of Everything), Winchester zooms in on the intersecting lives of two men: Professor James Murray, who oversaw the committee which collected the submitted definitions, and Dr. W. C. Minor, formerly a respected American doctor and medic in the Civil War, who then transplanted to England, and at the time of his 10,000-plus contributions to the dictionary was a psychotic murderer and inmate at a mental institution.The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary recommended by NoahIt sounds ridiculous, but I never travel without my O.S.P.D. Published by Merriam Webster, Inc. for Hasbro, it is the game of Scrabble’s one and only arbiter, from AA to ZYZZYVA (a tropical weevil and a damned hard word to make, given the fact that there is just one Z tile.) My Third Edition, with gold embossed lettering on a stately green hardcover, never sits on the shelf for very long since I became addicted to the Scrabulous application on Facebook. I may be a bit old for social networking, but opening a Scrabulous game with someone faraway by playing ZODIACS for 106 points? Priceless. And as long as I’m using my O.S.P.D., and not online references, it’s not cheating – at least that’s what I tell myself. Scrabulous may carry a price for its creators, who have been sued by Hasbro. If only life came with an O.S.P.D., such disputes would be so much easier to settle.The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron recommended by TimothyIn 1933, British author Robert Byron, a distant relative of Lord Byron, embarked on an 11-month journey with a friend across the Middle East, eventually ending up in India. Along the way he kept a journal – full of caustic wit and genuine discovery – later published as The Road to Oxiana. The book offers an historical look at the people and places of the Orient through the eyes of a privileged and opinionated traveler who makes his way by boat, bus and stolen horse. The journal can be enjoyed either in its entirety or by reading accounts of select cities, such as Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, Kabul and many others in between. The entries, each noting the date and city elevation, range from descriptions about the joys of bargaining to verbatim accounts of memorable conversations concerning local customs. To be sure, Byron occasionally makes sweeping generalizations about the ethnic groups he encounters. While in Baghdad he writes: “The hotel is run by Assyrians, pathetic, pugnacious little people with affectionate ways.” More favorable opinions are formed when Byron gets to know people beyond monetary transactions.At its best, travel writing offers a healthy balance of observation and attitude. And if you’re lucky, the author will not shy from the self-revelation inherent when encountering new cultures. Byron accomplishes both. In his final entry, upon returning home, Byron expresses the timeless sentiment of a world traveler: “I began to feel dazed, dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending collision between eleven months’ momentum and the immobility of a beloved home.”The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas recommended by EmreI am easily impressionable. And sometimes my tendencies are highly ephemeral. Yet, for some obscure reason, I have a constant longing for that of the old, which – absolutely – can no longer be had. That is why I venture to recommend The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas to you fellow readers. Granted, it is a classic so oft cast in movie renditions and referred to in modern language that you – just as with the author’s Three Musketeers – might think you know all its details, but Dumas’s Count is still likely to entrap you in the mysterious ways he moves. Born into the lower classes and securing for himself the promise of a decent lower middle-class status, Edmond Dantes, the protagonist, is cast off society’s script as it unfolds with Napoleon’s return to the throne and immediate downfall. But Dantes lives on in the depths of a dark prison cell, and once free, plots a magnificent return, beautifully articulated by his vengeance. If you thought anyone vengeful, peek into the Count of Monte Cristo’s schemes and you will quickly change your mind, not to mention that you will appreciate them for their brilliance and ability to make you fly through upwards of 1,200 pages. Hefty as it might be, and outdated as honor might seem in our age, The Count shines a romantic light on the magnificent Parisian society of the early- to mid-1800s, providing the modern reader with a gripping story, colorful characters and a reflection on times and thoughts that may seem far away but are very much a part of our lives today. See also: Max on The Count.Setting Free the Bears by John Irving recommended by MaxIt was John Irving who introduced me to contemporary fiction. As a young teenager, his novels were the first I digested with an adult mind. Though it pains me to note that his later novels have been sub-par at best, the novels of his most fertile period – Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hotel New Hampshire and of course The World According to Garp – are nearly unparalleled. But often given short shrift is the book that started it all: Setting Free the Bears. Where some of Irving’s novels can sometimes suffer from baroque plotting, Bears is refreshingly direct and light-hearted. Written when Irving was just 25, he submitted the book’s initial draft as his Masters thesis at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (where Kurt Vonnegut was a professor). The book offers a pair of free-spirited protagonists on a motorcycle adventure through Austria and a plan to liberate the animals in Vienna’s zoo. As is so often the case with Irving, things go awry. Though regarded as one of Irving’s lesser works, Bears is good fun that lays the groundwork for the books that made him famous.The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen recommended by PatrickPeppered with references to MFK Fisher, this beautiful, readable novel could be described as the seminal work of foodie fiction (although such an appellation would belittle it). Hugo Whittier has removed himself to his ancestral home on the Hudson River, where he’s dying from a disease that could be cured if only he’d stop smoking. Hugo is the quintessential antihero, a sardonic, narcissistic curmudgeon grown prematurely old. He struggles to stay out of the affairs of his brother, who is stumbling headlong into divorce, and his estranged wife, who has appeared suddenly seeking reconciliation. Hugo is perfectly rendered, in all his self-centered glory. As a bonus, the book contains a ripping recipe for Shrimp Newburg.

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