You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Title…Or Can You?

There’s a book by A.M. Homes at my neighborhood library that stops me in my tracks. It doesn’t matter that I’ve passed it dozens of times in the year and a half since I’ve started using the Takoma Park Library. It doesn’t matter that I’m not a fan of A.M. Homes. It’s the title: This Book Will Save Your Life. Every time I see the words on their eye-catching, yellow-and-black spine, I find myself thinking, Will it? No, probably not. Well, maybe. . . .

Book covers are the subject of a large amount of debate in the publishing industry, for obvious reasons. In spite of the old saw, covers are what compel us to stop and pull a book off the shelf — or keep walking. Hence the ongoing conversations about cover art, like this blog post from Publisher’s Weekly, or the website Book Cover Archive, which features images of unusual book jackets.

It’s about more than just attractive fonts and startling photographs, though. After reading the names of hundreds of books that have crossed my desk here in the National Geographic Society Library over the past few years, I’ve realized that there are several strategies that authors and editors use to come up with a stand-out title. I’ve listed a few of them below, along with a sampling of titles from our collection that I found irresistible:

1. The Scare Tactic Title

You know one when you see it. Deadly algae, apocalyptic plagues, wild animal attacks. Do you need to start worrying? You’ll have to borrow the book and find out. . . .

Deadly Ants by Seymour Simon
Killer Algae by Alexandre Meinesz
The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett
Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals by Gordon Grice

2. The Deliberately Quirky Title

Preparing for a trip to Mars and mellifying a corpse probably weren’t on your “To Do” list for 2011, but it never hurts to be prepared.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
How to Mellify a Corpse by Vicki León
Headless Males Make Great Lovers & Other Unusual Natural Histories by Marty Crump
Sexy Orchids Make Lousy Lovers & Other Unusual Relationships by Marty Crump

3. The Poetic Title

If there’s not a subtitle to help you out, then it’s not always obvious what these evocative phrases mean, but they’re beautiful and they make you want to read more.

Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi
I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i by Susanna Moore
Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee by Hattie Ellis
Lands of Silence: a History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration by Sir Clements R. Markham
Everything Sings by Denis Wood

4. The “Story Behind The Story” Title

These titles promise to do more than teach you something new . . . they’ll make you popular at your next cocktail party.

How the Earthquake Bird Got Its Name And Other Tales of an Unbalanced Nature by H.H. Shugart
How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein
I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears: And Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World by Jag Bhalla
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
Why Size Matters by John Tyler Bonner

5. The “Thrilling Adventure” Title

“Thrilling adventures” is popular category with the staff at National Geographic. Here are just a few titles that guarantee armchair excitement.

Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic by Vilhjalmur Stefansson
The Man Who Ate His Boots by Anthony Brandt
Hell on Ice by Commander Edward Ellsberg
Disaster at Sea: The Story of the World’s Great Maritime Tragedies by Otto Mielke
An Evening Among Headhunters & Other Reports from Roads Less Traveled by Lawrence Millman
The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas by Anne Salmond

Other suggestions or favorites?

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