Tag Archives: publishing

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Perfect Titles

Often a good title is an ironic play on words, like John Sayles perfectly named “At the Anarchist’s Convention.”

Working out titles for books, a film, a song or various shorter pieces is one of the pleasures of writing.  A title is a kind of flag.  It identifies a specific effort to capture a subject or the attitude of its author.  It ought to be suggestive of what a reader or listener can expect to find. And it is sometimes meant to be a hook, baiting a reticent audience  to take a chance.

A conventional view among some writers and publishers is that a good title is approximately three words.  Think of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Odd Couple, The Grapes of WrathThe Cherry Orchard, Angels in America, East of Eden, or Rebel Without a Cause. The three-word rule was on my mind in choosing The Perfect Response.  It seemed like a good fit for my humble book on public rhetoric, and later, this blog.  And then there are the gentle ironies of titles that suggest pages promising insights created by unusual alignments. For example, there’s John Berendt’s Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil or Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceIdeas that appear to be alien to each other often make interesting titles, though I was surely too pleased with myself for using “Case Studies in Constructive Confrontation” as a book’s subtitle.  But my mother–probably the lone reader of the book–liked it.

Often a good title is an ironic and funny play on words, perhaps a non-sequitur like the title of a John Sayles short story, At the Anarchist’s Convention. Book titles don’t get any better than this. Can anarchists pull off an organized event?  Jerry Stiller’s humorous reading below leaves no doubts; the can’t.

Jerry Stiller reads “At the Anarchists’ Convention”

Jerry Stiller reading “At the Anarchists’ Convention,” a short story by John Sayles. To purchase this recording, please click on the links below: http://store.symphonyspace.org/products/at-the-anarchists-convention-by-john-sayles-mp3-download http://store.symphonyspace.org/collections/selected-shorts-collections/products/american-classics

The names of hair salons have mastered this playful kind of humor. Apparently there’s a Sunny and Shears and a Hey, I’m Dyeing Over Here sitting somewhere among shops with more prosaic names.

Some titles have a grace that matches their essence, like John Hartford’s Gentle on my Mind, which is now usually sung as a tribute to Glen Campbell.  There’s also Pete Seeger’s beautiful tribute, To the Old Brown Earth, sung at memorial service of a friend, and below, by young singers from Milwaukee.

Pete Seeger: To my old brown earth (arr., Paul Halley)

Vocal Arts Academy Young Artists (Emily Crocker, director). 2013-January-28. This song by folk singer Pete Seeger looks at life’s passage through the perspective of one’s physical being transitioning back to the physical earth.”To my old brown earth/And to my old blue sky/I’ll now give these last few molecules of ‘I.’…

In a very different genre, but creating a broader smile, is Mark Chesnutt’s country ditty, Bubba Shot the Jukebox, which can be heard in his album Longnecks & Short Stories. (1992).

Titles are almost always interesting welcome mats, inviting us in.  They are reminders of how much we owe to the playfulness and associations created through language.


The Invitation of the Blank White Page

paper commons wikimedia.org
Source: Wikipedia.org

It’s a medium with many virtues we tend to overlook: low cost, portability, and compact storage of text, images and data.

Although the precise origins of paper are hard to identify, some authorities place it in China about 105 AD. Plant fibers gathered and poured into a water bath were spread and carefully removed by a screen underneath, leaving a thin layer of material that could be dried so it would accept paint or ink. Papermaking eventually migrated to Egypt and Iraq, and then to Europe. “Paper” made in what is now Egypt was usually produced from papyrus or parchment (an animal skin), the only tools for capturing language recognized in the Koran.

While Egyptian papyrus (from which the word “paper” evolved) was initially the preferred material, it required more resources and woodworking skill than was practicable elsewhere. Eventually, near the end of 780s dried fibers of fabric became the dominant ingredient, partly because it was less susceptible to forgeries than all the other alternatives, and because it could more easily be sized with oils made from animal by-products. Sizing produced a smooth surface able to hold ink.

This and much more is told in Lothar Müller’s new book, White Magic: The Age of Paper (Polity Press, 2014)He notes that even before the invention of the printing press in 1450 there was a steady stream of written material made by copyists, as well as “printers” using ink transfers from individual wood blocks. Hand copied books were numerous, along with items such as block-printed playing cards with monarchs painted on their surfaces.  In the 14th Century it appears that nearly everybody played cards.

Arguably the most potent effect of the ability to make paper was not necessarily the book, but the ledger and the formal contract. Spain as the center of Phillip II’s empire is given credit (or maybe it should be blame) for creating one of the first paper-based bureaucracies.  Decrees, written petitions, contracts and files were committed to the page. Still made from rag fibers until higher demand would require the substitution of wood pulp, paper made possible major advances that are frequently still used: the keeping of governmental and business ledgers, the practice of double bookkeeping, and the increasing use of correspondence by mail. In the latter case, a chain of effects followed wider access to postal systems, triggering the development of better roads and predictable timetables.

All of these advances are based on a medium with virtues we tend to overlook: low cost, portability, and compact storage of text, images and data. These conditions were the essential prelude to the printed book, which was made possible especially in the West because of the ease of creating standardized type based on the small Latin alphabet.

Not surprisingly, print formalized the idea of authorship, turning writers into long-form storytellers, and readers into linear thinkers.  The availability of paper from mills sprouting up everywhere contributed to the flowering the enlightenment and, later, distribution of scientific research based on the premise of world-wide peer-review.

Müller’s study of paper and the book notes that the story of these media is not over.  Paper gives history a durable record not yet equaled by digital files. He also reminds us that books are things. They can be owned, passed on, or resold. Many of us still draw satisfaction from their visible and tactile presence. By contrast, the electronic version is more accurately described as a licensed product. As such, it’s not quite the object for independent use that is a defining feature of its enduring paper counterpart.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu