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Nonfiction Books with Really Long Titles

June 9, 2013
If the title were shorter, we might not have to squint to see it.

If the title were shorter, we might not have to squint to see it.

One of the first books I reviewed for Dysfunctional Literacy was The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins.  The title is kind of long.  I couldn’t remember the whole thing so I simply referred to the book as The Murder of the Century: (with a really long subtitle).  That, I could remember. 

The Murder of the Century (with a really long subtitle) was a pretty good book, and I said in my review that I would probably read Paul Collins’s next book. 

It’s been two years, and Paul Collins has written another book.  This one is titled Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery.  Paul Collins likes long book titles. 

While author Paul Collins might take long titles to the extreme, nonfiction books seem to have long titles nowadays.  Here are a few titles from nonfiction books I’ve read in the last couple years: 

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain  (12 words) 

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business  by Charles Duhigg (pictured above at 14 words) 

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand  (a relatively short 11 words) 

My Greek Drama: Life, Love, and One Woman’s Olympic Effort to Bring Glory to Her Country by Gianna Angelopoulos (I haven’t read this one, but I couldn’t resist a 16 word title) 

Even without the titles of Paul Collins’s books, these nonfiction titles average over 10 words.  I have a tough time saying more than 10 words in one breath, but  I should probably work out more. 

Compare this to a list of fictional book titles (as in titles of real books in the fiction section, not fake book titles): 

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Something Prey by John Sandford

12th of Never by James Patterson and Somebody Else 

Fiction titles need to be short.  Otherwise, the title risks containing spoilers.  It’s bad enough that book blurbs and book reviews can contain spoilers; we don’t need them in titles as well. 

If Gone Girl were nonfiction, its title might be: Gone Girl: How a Wife’s Mysterious Disappearance Led to (Spoiler, Spoiler, and yet another Spoiler)

See?  It doesn’t work for fiction. 

The good thing about having a really long book title is that the author doesn’t have to explain what the book is about.  For example, here is a fictional conversation between author Paul Collins and a potential customer at a book store. 

***** 

Customer (who asks this question despite the giant sign with the title of the book on it): “What’s your book called?” 

Paul Collins (reading from the sign because he can’t remember the title of his own book):  “Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery.” 

Customer:  “Really?  What’s it about?” 

Paul Collins:  “The time that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr teamed up to take on America’s first sensational murder mystery.” 

Customer (after a pause):  “That’s good enough for me!” 

***** 

I don’t remember nonfiction books having long titles when I was a kid.  I’m Okay, You’re Okay was a huge best-seller decades ago (when I was a kid), and just from those four words I knew I didn’t want to read it.  Then again, my memory can be pretty bad sometimes.  I just looked up this book (I did research!) and discovered the title is I’m Okay, You’re Okay: A Practical Guide to Transactional Analysis.  

Now I really don’t want to read it.  I don’t know what “transactional analysis” is, but I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to be “okay” with it. 

The point is, long nonfiction book titles don’t seem to be new.  But Paul Collins is probably taking it to a new level. 

***** 

DISCLAIMER: Despite my gentle mockery, I’ll probably read Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery.  I figure I’m halfway done just by getting through the title.

13 Comments
  1. Here’s another one for you: Sex, Bombs and Burgers – How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology As We Know It(16 words) – Peter Nowak. Quite an interesting read, really.

  2. It’s like the formula now is (Catchy Title) : (long explanation). Just as well fiction has got away from that. There was a time when fiction chapters used to be like that. “Chapter 12: in which Lord Featherweight has an accident and can’t remember who his real wife is.” or whatever.

    • I forgot about that. A lot of the classics were like that. I’m glad books don’t do that now because I can’t stand it when chapter titles contain spoilers. I work so hard to avoid spoilers in the blurbs and book reviews that I’d feel cheated then to run into spoilers in the chapter titles.

    • Yeah, I remember back when it was the 1700s and all the chapters were like that.

  3. The secondary title would be a better catch phrase in the jacket of the book or possibly an introductory sentence, however, of late verbosity is king. Great article. 🙂

  4. “Something Prey” huh. Sounds like John Stanford forgot to fill in his own title when he opened the “thriller novel” Word template.

    • Haha! No, that was my own laziness. I couldn’t remember which one was his new one, so I improvised. Maybe John Sandford will use the title some day.

  5. James Patterson and Somebody Else.
    Hahahaha!

  6. This is hilarious. And so true. I’m tinkering with a non-fiction piece and it hasn’t even crossed my mind to name it something other than _______ : ____________________________ . The colon is automatic!

  7. Triumph of the Colon: How the 2013 National Book Awards Nominated Ten Books With Colonized Titles for the Non-Fiction Award

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