What’s in a name?

By March 13, 2019

I’ve spent a bit of time in the last month thinking about titles. I’m considering my own potential book titles, but also the titles of two books that I’m currently reviewing. When I got a copy of The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism and Sacred Texts edited by Blair G. Van Dyke, Brain D. Birch, and Boyd. J. Petersen (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2018) I assumed I knew what it was about. Joseph Smith’s expansion on the Christian canon has been a lightning rod for attention since before he organized any church. I expected a focused consideration of Latter-day Saint expansions to the Christian canon: The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. Likewise, when I first saw Larry Morris’ Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2019), I made assumptions. I initially panicked wondering if his work overlapped too much with my own current Book of Mormon reception book project and then hoped that he laid out the publication history through documents so I didn’t have to sort it all out myself.

In both of these instances, I was wrong. Latter-day Saint concepts of authority are more salient in The Expanded Canon anthology than official scripture; the canon here is defined much more broadly. (My full review will appear in the Journal of Mormon History.) And the Documentary History of the Book of Mormon centers around the coming forth of the book, only the last chapter turns to the production and publication of the Book. Though there are decades later sources describing the process, the book effectively ends on 26 March 1830 with the Wayne Sentinel’s “Announcement of the Publication of the Book of Mormon.” (My review is for the Mormon Studies Review.)

What is the work of a title? Is pulling the reader in more important than understanding the content immediately? I’m reading Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing and she argues that any academic title (and sub-title) need be “interesting” and “eye-catching.” In general, many of the historians and religious historians that I read have focused on that for a long time while working to not let go of accuracy. “Pithy title[semi-colon] more specific explanation [comma] range of years” seems pretty standard for many titles.

Perusing some of the books stacked on my desk, most historical and religious studies titles fall into the “Pithy title[semi-colon] more specific explanation[comma] range of years” mode of titling—can I call it a “semicolon comma title?” Michael Altman’s Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893 (Oxford 2017) follows this mode particularly well choosing a progression of labels Americans gave Indians over time with a specific time period. Douglas Winiarski’s Darkness Falls in the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (UNC 2017) is an example of “Pithy quote: more specific explanation” with just a century designation. Kathryn Gin Lum’s Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Oxford 2014) currently wins my category for best title (and best cover). Lum uses two historical periods to limit her analysis. Tisa Wenger’s Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (UNC 2017) and Lincoln Mullen’s The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard 2017) both examine a more sweeping time period.

For most of these titles, the subtitle is essential. However, I’m not sure that Edmund Morgan’s 1958 classic The Puritan Dilemma needs his subtitle—The John Winthrop Story. Did it initially? Or did it lose its necessity over time as the book became a classic?

We currently have more straightforward historical titles breaking free from the tyranny of the semicolon format: Seth Perry’s Bible Culture & Authority in the United States (Princeton 2018) and David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom (Oxford 2014). As well as some recent Mormon titles: Foundational Texts of Mormonism (Oxford 2017) and Mormonism and the Making of a British Zion (Utah 2016). I appreciate the intriguing title coupled with the utilitarian specificity of “Pithy title[semi-colon] more specific explanation [comma] range of years.” The straightforward nature of a single compelling title is gaining traction with me. (I’m just not sure I’m creative enough to pull it off.)

What are some of your favorite titles? What is the best advice you’ve received regarding titles? What elements are most important? What do you see as the benefits and limitations of certain kinds of titles? How do we craft something that is both compelling and descriptive?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Today, a book title is as much an advertisement as a brief summary of the book’s contents. Personally, I tend to agree that a brief, “pithy” title, no colons, semi-colons, commas, etc, is ideal. But, more often than not, it seems that it’s authors who want a longer title, something more in keeping with current academic fads. I doubt we’ll see a decrease in punctuated titles. Let’s hope, however, that it stay in the realm of non-fiction. (Can you imagine “The Cather in the Rye: Holden Caulfield’s Descent into Manic Depression”?)

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 13, 2019 @ 11:31 am

  2. My sense is that it is easier to break away from “semicolon comma title” if you are dealing with bigger timespans. I haven’t read Sehat’s volume on religious freedom, but I imagine that it covers a comprehensive timespan, it also wisely includes a hook–“myth.”

    I did the standard routine for my book. I guess I could have easily just gone with the subtitle: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. There are a number of examples of similarly styled titles in the Mormon Studies catalog. But I guess I viewed Power of Godliness as both a hook, and something easier to remember/say. I’m sitting hear trying to think if I could have gotten a hook in there without a semicolon. Not an easy task.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

  3. I wonder if any of this is related to audience and press, too. It seems like the format of what you describe is fairly typical for academic history books, even some that I love from trade presses (like A Midwife’s Tale and From Bible Belt to Sunbelt). I actually like shorter, more direct titles (even if I don’t like the books themselves), like The Radicalism of the American Revolution. It’s direct but in a mysterious way. I also love History and Presence for not having a subtitle. The Strange Career of Jim Crow and The Democratization of American Christianity also don’t have subtitles, although I think I would like whatever title those books had. And a shoutout to Secularism in Antebellum America for its crazy subtitle

    Comment by Jeff T — March 13, 2019 @ 4:50 pm

  4. Secularism in Antebellum America’s subtitle wins everything.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 13, 2019 @ 11:09 pm

  5. I may stand alone but I like the pithy quote title formula, so long as it isn’t too obscure. I think it’s what the book is often known for in shorthand and that makes it easier to recommend to fellow scholars or to interested non-specialists (Fluhman’s Peculiar People, Greene’s No Depression in Heaven, Petro’s After the Wrath of God, Weisenfeld’s New World-A-Coming).

    Comment by J Stuart — March 15, 2019 @ 10:25 am

  6. I’m not so much opposed to the pithy quote title formula, as I am impressed when a non-semi-colon title is able to accomplish as much as the other.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 15, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

  7. These are good questions, Janiece. I suck at coming up with titles, so I often rely on others. (Ironically, it was John Turner who came up with the name for my first book.)

    With my current book on Nauvoo, though, I thought I came up with the perfect title: “Democracy’s Discontents.” (It would have an explanatory subtitle, of course.) I was stoked. Unfortunately, the press rejected it, because they insisted the title had to have something that identified the topic. Hence, “The Kingdom of Nauvoo.”

    Comment by Ben P — March 15, 2019 @ 6:41 pm

  8. Titles are hard because they serve so many purposes, as several of you have mentioned. I am also agonizing about my current project (it’s a history of Plymouth Colony, and I feel a need to cram “Pilgrims,” “Mayflower,” and “Plymouth” into the title or subtitle).

    Ben: “Kingdom of Nauvoo” is great.

    Comment by John Turner — March 17, 2019 @ 1:43 pm

  9. I love it when the “pithy” parts of titles have a double meaning. “A House Full of Females” refers both to polygamy and to women’s authority/involvement in the relief society. “Laboring Women” refers to the labor that women perform in slavery but also the fact that child labor is a unique part of an enslaved women’s work.
    I also like it when the pithy title encapsulates the argument well because it makes the book (and its title) easy to remember (especially when you are doing your comprehensive exams). For example, “Wages of Whiteness,” “Masters of Small Worlds,” “What Blood Won’t Tell,” “The Impossibility of Religious Freedom,” or even “Comanche Empire.”

    Comment by Hannah Jung — April 9, 2019 @ 8:44 am

  10. Why not go for a one-word book title?

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/authors-on-their-one-word-book-titles

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — April 17, 2019 @ 9:19 am


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