For the past five years, I have been researching and writing a book. It is almost finished, and now it is time for me and my publisher to agree on a title. It has not gone smoothly.
The book is about a single day in American history, a date chosen at random by drawing numbers out of a hat. My thesis is that there is no such thing as an “ordinary” day. That if you dig deeply enough into the events of any random 24 hours, you will find a cornucopia of drama, humor, etc. — what we hacks like to call “the human condition.” I always planned that the book would be titled “One Day,” with a photo of the three slips of paper drawn from the hat: “December,” “28th” and “1986.” Period. End of cover concept. A veritable pearl of concision.
Alas, that is apparently not how things are done anymore. Publishers believe that in this era of Search Engine Optimization, books must have subtitles, whether superfluous or not, and the more wordy the better.
This was not my first such experience with this phenomenon. Years ago, I wrote a book about old dogs. The title was to be “Old Dogs,” inasmuch as that is what the book was about. It was complicated. It was about love and loyalty and death. On the cover would be a photo of an old dog, cementing the theme elegantly. But the publisher insisted on a subtitle. The cover came out thus: “OLD DOGS: Are the best dogs.” Every time I see it, I cringe a bit. It seems vapidly upbeat, as though it is missing a jaunty thumbs-up and a “by golly!” at the end.
Anyway, my current publisher and I are in good-natured negotiations on the title of this new book. But the experience has left me wondering what old book covers would have been like in the new era.
Book: Webster’s Dictionary. Subtitle: Orgasms! Greed! Puppies! Mushrooms, oubliettes, mitochondria, torture and kale!
Book: “A Brief History of Time,” by Stephen Hawking. Subtitle: Don’t even try. Just put it on your bookshelf to feel smart.
Book: “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” by Baroness Orczy. Subtitle: No, you idiot, it’s not pumpernickel. It’s a foofy red smelly flower with spatulate petals. But there are beheadings, so it’s cool.
Book: “Finnegans Wake,” by James Joyce. Subtitle: Blort fafoomby blatto blit gazool.
Book: “The Canterbury Tales,” by Geoffrey Chaucer. Subtitle: As long ago as 1388, people farted.
Book: “The Exorcist,” by William Peter Blatty. Subtitle: You’ll never see this twist coming.
Book: “Dick and Jane,” the children’s reader series. Subtitle: Dick. Jane. Run. Jump. (Hey, give us a break. The book only HAS about 40 different words in it.)
Book: “Portnoy’s Complaint,” by Philip Roth. Subtitle: Exciting new recipes for liver.
Book: “The Firm,” by John Grisham. Subtitle: A plucky lawyer takes on a corrupt system.
Book: “The Client,” by John Grisham. Subtitle: A plucky lawyer takes on a corrupt system.
Book: “The Rainmaker,” by John Grisham. Subtitle: A plucky lawyer takes on a corrupt system.
Book: “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader.” Subtitle: I hope you’re sitting down for this.
Book: “The Three Musketeers,” by Alexandre Dumas. Subtitle: Now with a bonus fourth musketeer!
Book: “One Day — 12/28/1986,” by Gene Weingarten. Subtitle: Only 362 shopping days until next Christmas.
Thanks for the help: Phil Frankenfeld, Rob Cohen, Valerie Holt, Dave Zarrow, Mark Mironer, Claire Keeler and Brendan Beary. Email Gene Weingarten at firstname.lastname@example.org . Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.