Miles Kington: Is it just me, or are book titles getting sillier?

The strongest new pattern I have noticed recently is the tripartite one: Something, Something and Something
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The Independent Online

It is always nice when you spot a trend which nobody else may have noticed yet, so I am staking my claim to have seen the emergence of a new pattern in book titles.

That there are fashions in book titles cannot be denied. For instance, biographies were often, in the old days, labelled The Life and Times of ... , but I cannot see anyone trying that pompous approach today. Perhaps Spike Milligan torpedoed such solemnity for once and for all when he subverted the genre in his three war memoir titles: Hitler, My Part in His Downfall, Monty, His Part in My Victory and "Rommel? Gunner Who? A Confrontation in the Desert. It would be very hard to use portentous phrases like My Part in... after that.

But apart from the lightening of tone, there are also rhythmical variations in patterns. Within living memory, it was very fashionable to give titles to thrillers which had three words. The first word was always "The". The last word was a rather serious word. The middle word was usually a name. So we had books called The Ipcress File, The Quiller Memorandum, The Andromeda Strain, The Poseidon Adventure, The Manchurian Candidate and so on. Not many of those around any more, with the startling exception of The Da Vinci Code.

Another more recent fashion was to drop the word "The" and just have the formula, Somebody's Something. Flaubert's Parrot. Stalin's Nose. Voltaire's Coconuts. Nathaniel's Nutmeg. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and so on. Zippy titles, but all rather meaningless. (If they were novels, it didn't matter, because novel titles don't have to mean anything, but all the others had to have subtitles just to explain what they were about, as in Ian Buruma's Voltaire's Coconuts: Or Anglomania in Europe.)

That particular pattern has ebbed, and nearly vanished, with the late-flowering exception of Angela's Ashes, and several other patterns have emerged instead, such as the trend towards questions as titles (Does Anything Eat Wasps?, Does My Bum Look Big in This? and Is It Just Me, Or Is Everything Shit?)

But the strongest new pattern I have noticed recently is the tripartite one popularised by Lynne Truss in Eats Shoots and Leaves. Not Somebody's Something, but Something, Something and Something.



I was recently sent a review copy by Penguin of Fat, Bald and Worthless, a rather dishevelled round-up of historical nicknames. (Very dishevelled in my case; it went straight from page 134 to 255).

Sutton Publishing have got an intriguing history of sanitation out called Bogs, Baths and Basins. I have not seen Nigel Marsh's book Fat, Forty and Fired, but I think I can begin to guess at its subject matter.

The Oldie magazine have just issued a guide to modern life, helping older readers to keep in touch with newer things, entitled Bling, Blogs and Bluetooth. The expert wordsmith Michael Quinion has a book out on the origins of quaint words called Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds.

I could go on, as we writers say when we start to run out of examples, but I think that is enough to demonstrate that the rule of three is riding high at the moment. It's been around for a long time, of course. George Melly's naval reminiscences were entitled Rum, Bum and Concertina in 1977. There was the film Sex, Lies and Videotapes. Len Deighton wrote a book on World War II called Blood, Tears and Folly. But I think it's getting everywhere at the moment, even in the subtitle of a new book by David Crystal, called The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot and left. (He disapproves, as you can tell, of the Lynne Truss prescriptive schoolmarm approach to grammar and spelling.)

Not that any of this worries me. I have the title of my next book worked out already. I am going to call it That Book They Read on Radio 4 Last Week. Hundreds of people go into bookshops every week saying: "Have you got that book they read on Radio 4 last week?" In years to come it will be my book they will be going home with. Let no one copy. I thought of it first.