The Washington Post

That &%$! book title

"& Sons," by David Gilbert (Random House). “& Sons,” by David Gilbert (Random House).

& now we consider David Gilbert’s new novel, which publishes today amid a rising chorus of literary excitement.

But let others concern themselves with whether it’s any good or not. I want to talk about the title.

Take note: It’s not “And Sons.” It’s “& Sons.” Even the copyright page lists the title as “& Sons.” So, no, that elegant curlicue isn’t a designer’s flourish; it’s the author’s conscious choice.

“I just happen to love ampersands,” Gilbert told me via e-mail, “and I kind of constructed the whole novel around that twisty knot of a sign. All the characters are tied up in that ampersand.”

Indeed. The story is about a reclusive writer famous for his classic novel about teenage angst called “Ampersand.” (Think J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.”)

Publishing houses often push back on titles with their own suggestions, but Random House was on board with this ampersand from the start. Executive editor David Ebershoff explained via -that “it all started with a call from Dave’s agent, Bill Clegg, who described a book about writing and writers and families and fathers and sons and a classic American novel called ‘Ampersand.’ It was one of the most impassioned pitches I’ve ever heard, and Bill tied it all together by telling me the title last: ‘& Sons.’ It sounded like the perfect title, and once I read the book, I knew it was.”

This does pose a strange problem, though.

Ask for Gilbert’s novel at your local bookstore, and the clerk won’t be able to tell if you’re saying “And Sons” or “& Sons,” but what about Amazon? Weirdly, the Internet retailer is stumped by the correct title. Enter “& Sons” into the search box, and you’ll be directed to Philipp Meyer’s “The Son,” some YA novels by Rick Riordan and Lois Lowry, and a few romance novels:

Amazon search results for “& Sons.”

Barnes & Noble is similarly baffled by the real title, despite what you might assume to be the company’s personal affection for ampersands.

But for Random House, the integrity of Gilbert’s vision was worth the risk of confusing the Empire’s super computers.

Associate Publisher Avideh Bashirrad tells me via email, “We knew that certain websites wouldn’t recognize the ampersand as the first character in a title. But to all of us, the ampersand was essential to the book’s themes, and changing it wasn’t an option. So we went into this knowing that some users would have to search ‘AND’ or include the author’s name to drive the search.”

Indie bookstores, this is your chance!



Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



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Washington Post · July 23, 2013