It is late May, a glorious time of year. The grades have been filed, the graduates ushered off to their futures. And like swallows to Capistrano, scholars return to their research: book projects, long-overdue book reviews, and articles they have been meaning to write but never have.
And thus we also return to pondering sources, arguments, and – the most diverting exercise of all – titles.
Titles are fun to think about; they are also extraordinarily important. These words are the first that a potential reader sees on the bookshelf, in a promotional email, or on a list generated by Google or library catalog searches. A misleading or boring title can actually alienate readers, costing the author citations and book sales.
In the humanities, most article and book titles look like this:
- Zippy phrase or pithy quote that conveys the argument or subject of the piece and acts as a “hook”
- Descriptive secondary title conveying the subject, location, and time period of the text
Some scholars play around with this configuration (or think about playing around with it). What about crafting a question for a title? Or ditching the secondary title altogether? Or getting really creative with the hook?
At one point, I suggested to my PhD adviser that I change the title of my dissertation (about the Okefenokee Swamp) from “Peculiar Ecology” to “Muck.” She objected, strongly and loudly. “Do not ever, EVER, give your work a title that rhymes with a curse word,” she said. “That’s just an invitation for a reviewer to use one.” Wise advice.
Innovative titles are risky and therefore book and article titles continue to echo one another — and to seem boring and unoriginal.
Even so, it was startling to read the titles of the two U.S. history books that won the Bancroft Prize this year:
- Empire of Cotton: A Global History (by Sven Beckert)
- The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (by Greg Grandin)
The similarities of these hooks prompted some hilarious exchanges via Twitter (March 26, 2015), in which scholars Ann Little, Liz Covart, and a handful of others suggested new titles for their own books, using as many “Empires” as possible. “Empire of Empires: the Imperial History of Empire.” #BecauseEmpire
This Bancroft Prize title echo suggests that, like fields of study, book titles trend.
I began to wonder: how many Bancroft Prize-winning book titles include similar words or phrases? Are there particular words that appear again and again, that seem guaranteed to appeal to the prize committees?
I crunched the numbers on the previous twenty-five years of Bancroft titles and the answer to both questions, dear reader, is yes. Oh, yes.
And so I present to you: The Bancroft Prize Title Generator.
I must acknowledge that this is not a technologically advanced generator. I investigated what it would take to code an online generator and apparently, what it would take is an actual coder.
So here’s the deal: you give me your current book project/dissertation title (or a short description of the work) in the comments section of this blog post, and the Bancroft Prize Title Generator (a.k.a. Historista) will give you a shiny new one as a reply.
I don’t guarantee results but if you do end up winning the Bancroft with this new title, I think a small cut of your winnings (let’s say, 5%) is only fair, don’t you?