Saturday, December 27, 2008


In book design, as with many things in life, simplicity is better. With hundreds of thousands of books released each year, publishers must make their titles stand out and communicate to prospective buyers instantly. Sometimes this is as simple as featuring the author’s name big and bold (John Grisham, Sue Grafton, etc.), and sometimes it is with a straightforward photo or illustration.

And many times it is the title. Titles can be mysterious or informative, plain or controversial, but one rule is common across genres and designs: rarely the title more than four or five words. Many times, in fact, it is far less: one word. A title should be memorable, easy to recommend or request as a gift. A title strives to be as short as possible, without becoming generic. If it sounds generic (House, Baseball, etc.) the design must step up to make it stand out.

There is a part of the bookstore that trades in these catchy one-word titles more than any other: the history section. Here a browser can find all sorts of intriguing titles—for example Coal, Wood, Drink, Salt, and Cod. Each of these books takes a single subject and explores its place in history. The appeal lies in the magnification of a seemingly mundane object and its concomitant contextualization in the grand story of human history. This naming technique could theoretically be almost infinitely adapted : War, Computer, Book, etc., simply by distilling an otherwise obscure or complicated matter into a neatly defined title. This makes the book appear to be the definitive source on the subject at hand, a must-read for anyone with an interest in that topic.

As a bibliophile myself, I am consistently drawn in by books like Cod and Wood. I may not have cared a whit about Cod before, but seeing an entire book written about its significance suddenly makes me very curious. Reading books like these enables one to experience history from a new perspective. Rather than reading a linear account of 18th century European commerce, one sees the role that the cod trade played in this story. It’s a fascinating and enjoyable way to digest potentially dry facts and events, and a niche genre of non-fiction I highly recommend.

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