Friday, June 06, 2008

Subtitles; or how to pad, swell and overexplain a perfectly good title

Gideon Haigh, everyone's favourite cricket writer (He's an Australian writer who supported England in the 95 Ashes. That's got to be worth a beer), has written a great little essay for The Monthly. His subject is the surfeit of subtitles currently disfiguring the non-fiction section of your local bookshop:

Once, of course, books had no need of such otiose elaboration. To stick with American politics, there once existed the cultural literacy that made possible titles like Nixon Agonistes, with its hint of Milton, and All the President’s Men, with its echo of Robert Penn Warren. Critics, for their part, vouchsafed standalone titles of such solemn grandeur as The Death of Tragedy, A Gathering of Fugitives, The Evening Colonnade and Under the Sign of Saturn. Historians bandied around bald provocations like The Decline of the West, The Revolt of the Masses, The Making of the English Working Class and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Now it's easier to take a few rough swings, and hope that one connects. Actually, there is a parlour game in the making imagining what modern marketing might have made of various classics: say, Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason: Why Space and Time Are A Priori Intuitions, Why We Cannot Meaningfully Conceive of an Object that Exists Outside of Time and Has No Spatial Components, Why We Are Prohibited from Absolute Knowledge of the Thing-In-Itself... And 101 Ways to Save the World (nobody will read long enough to learn that the last part is bogus); or maybe Plato's Republic: The Seven Habits of Highly Successful City-States (always use 'seven': it's publishing magic). T.E. Lawrence was ahead of the curve with Seven Pillars of Wisdom, yet how much better than his original subtitle A Triumph would have been something like How I Rallied Arab Irregulars, Tied Down the Ottoman Empire, Masterminded the Capture of Aqaba and Damascus... And You Can Too.

3 comments:

killer bob said...

I totally agree. The use of subtitles has put me off purchasing/reading a book many-a-time. I somehow associate really poor humour with them and I can never get over it.
I assume you are Radiohead-ing tonight and/or tomorrow. Have a good one. I saw Bat For Lashes on her warm-up show on Tuesday and she was sensational.

lee said...

Yeah I'm really looking forward to seeing Bat for Lashes. They're great and she's...lovely...

As for Radiohead.... they're playing in a couple of weeks?? Unless I've gone horribly insane...

killer bob said...

No, no you haven't. For some bizarre reason I thought it was this weekend. I hope a bit of wee did not arrive in your pants.