A post in praise of long titles for books, in which I clarify “long,” give luxuriant examples, describe the function, compare with lengthy titles in other spheres of life, dismiss objections both silly and obnoxious, and cap off with further examples

Some people dislike the long titles that many old books had. They scorn them or laugh at them.

I rather enjoy them.

In fact, I find them relaxing. I’ve encountered a couple just recently that really eased my nerves.

When I say “long” I don’t mean Super Sad True Love Story long or The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins long. I don’t even mean A Description of the Empire of China and Chinese-Tartary, Together with the Kingdoms of Korea, and Tibet long or The Botanic Garden, A Poem, in Two Parts; Containing The Economy of Vegetation and The Loves of the Plants long, though that’s heading in the right direction: not just a title but a brief table of contents as well. No, though, some of them encompass an elevator pitch or even a jacket-flap description. I happened to encounter a couple while reading about William Godwin:

Thoughts Occasioned by The Perusal of Dr. Parr’s Spital Sermon, Preached at Christ Church, April 15, 1800: Being a Reply to the Attacks of Dr. Parr, Mr. Mackintosh, the Author of an Essay on Population, and Others

That’s nice, but how about this:

Catalogue of the Curious Library of That Very Eminent and Distinguished Author, William Godwin, Esq.: To Which Are Added, the Very Interesting and Original Autograph Manuscripts of His Highly Esteemed Publications, Which Will Be Sold by Auction by Mr. Sotheby and Son on Friday, June 17th, 1836 and Following Day

Here’s another that’s not quite as long but has a whole plot-line:

Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland, From the Arrival of the English: Also, A Particular Detail of That Which Broke Out the 23d of May, 1798; With the History of the Conspiracy Which Preceded It

It rather seems like looking at a menu and seeing, instead of “Eggs Benedict,” something more like “A Dual Serving of That Famous and Most Esteemed and Delectable Dish of Eggs, Poached and Served upon Toasted English Muffins, Between the Two Inserted a Slice of Back Bacon Often Called Canadian Bacon, and the Whole Topped with the Rich Lemon-Scented Sauce Named in Honour of Holland and Made with Egg Yolks and Butter, All of Which Bearing the Name of One Benedict.” (Ya know what? I’d go to that restaurant.)

Now, these may seem (to most) so many quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. But there are some better-known works that have longer titles than people remember. Daniel Defoe is responsible for two of them:

The fortunes and misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother) Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent, Written from her own memorandums

Lucky thing most people don’t read the whole title before getting to the book, because it’s loaded with spoilers. And then there’s this one:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates

Now, to be fair, Defoe styled both those titles deliberately and luxuriantly in imitation of the style used by autobiographical works (which his novels pretended to be). But also, no one called them by the full title. We know them as Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe.

And so it is. Books are not the only things that can have names much longer than anyone uses. Most of us have a middle name or two; some have rather more. The Spanish playwright commonly referred to as Calderón or Calderón de la Barca was, in full, Pedro Calderón de la Barca y Barreda González de Henao Ruiz de Blasco y Riaño. The Arabic historiographer usually called ibn Khaldun was Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (and there’s an even longer version that lists more of his ancestry). King Edward VIII was, in full, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, and to his family and friends he was David.

And then there are places. Of course many people will think of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, or Llanfair PG to the economically minded. But have you heard of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles sobre el Río Porciúncula? Well, OK, that’s not its official name these days; they trimmed it down to City of Los Angeles. But that’s not short enough for most people, it seems, because you typically just hear it called L.A. Meanwhile, the smallest state in the union has quite the long name: State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. That’s just Rhode Island to most people, even though the island is not as large as the plantations, but most of the state is neither island nor plantations.

That’s just fine, of course; the annoying sporadically repeated didactic just-so story of Tikki-Tikki-Rimbo or Rikki-Tikki-Tavy or whoever illustrates the problem of using the full version of a very long name every time, which literally no one ever actually does (honestly, what kind of an unpleasant person even makes up a story just to tell people not to do something that they by no means would even want to do?). But it’s nice to have those extra bits, those leisurely blurbs, those pendant recipes, to luxuriate in at length, with their archaic phrasing and punctuation. Doesn’t this make you want to learn to shoe horses?

The farriers new guide: containing first, the anatomy of a horse. Being an exact and compendious description of all his parts; with their actions and uses: illustrated with figures curiously engrav’d on copper-plates. Secondly, an account of all the diseases incident to horses, with their signs, causes, and methods of cure. Wherein many defects in the farriers practice, are now carefully supply’d, their errors expos’d and ammended, and the art greatly improv’d and advanc’d, according to the latest discoveries / the whole interspers’d with many curious and useful observations concerning feeding and exercise, &c., by W. Gibson

And even this might make me want to read a few lines of the text – actually, it is a few lines of the text:

A compleat body of divinity in two hundred and fifty expository lectures on the Assembly’s Shorter catechism wherein the doctrines of the Christian religion are unfolded, their truth confirm’d, their excellence display’d, their usefulness improv’d; contrary errors & vices refuted & expos’d, objections answer’d, controversies settled, cases of conscience resolv’d; and a great light thereby reflected on the present age. / By the Reverend & learned Samuel Willard, M.A. late Pastor of the South Church in Boston, and vice-president of Harvard College in Cambridge, in New-England. ; Prefac’d by the pastors of the same church.

I think the next time I write a book I might see if I can title it similarly. Then if someone asks me what it’s about I can just show them the title. Or perhaps recite it, if I can manage to memorize it.

4 responses to “A post in praise of long titles for books, in which I clarify “long,” give luxuriant examples, describe the function, compare with lengthy titles in other spheres of life, dismiss objections both silly and obnoxious, and cap off with further examples

  1. A favorite book (truly) from 1935 by the American doctor Hans Zinsser is titled “Rats, Lice, and History: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals With the Life History of Typhus Fever.” It’s essentially a biography of an infectious disease, and quite entertaining to read. (If I recall correctly, it’s also where Jared Diamond got his inspiration for the title of “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”)

  2. The other day I was marveling at the full title of Peter Weiss’s play with music, Marat/Sade: “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade”.

    I see now that Weiss was a relative piker compared with DeFoe.

  3. Marvelous play, in English translation. This is de Sade describing Charlotte Corday:

    Historians agree so it’s not lewd in us
    to say that she’s phenomenally pulchritudinous

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