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?