Your Book in a Sentence: An Ode to the Subtitle

duel with the devilEarlier this month, I snagged a copy of Paul Collins’ new book Duel With the Devil. Like many of my recent reads, I didn’t actually know anything about the story or even bother to read the summary or blurbs before I picked it up. I decided to read this book because I loved the subtitle — The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery. 

I can’t read that book title and not imagine Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr partnering up like Batman and Robin, or maybe the news team from Anchormanto go out and solve crimes together. If someone made me a GIF of that, I’d love you forever.

In general, I love book subtitles — that second sentence that follows the title, often after a colon. The longer and quirker the subtitle, the better I like it. I’ve picked up more books than I can count and read them solely based the fact that the subtitle made me laugh, smile, or just think.

I don’t really care about Prince Edward, but I will read a book about him if it’s called The Woman Before Wallis: Prince Edward, the Parisian Courtesan, and the Perfect Murder (murder gets me every time). I have no idea what The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese is about, but I’ve got that book pre-ordered. And I wouldn’t have picked up one of my now-favorite books without it’s wonderful subtitle,  Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players.

Not everyone is as gung-ho about subtitles as I am. Back in 2011, The Millions asked whether run-on subtitles were literature’s new flop sweat, responding specifically to one of my favorite subtitles of all time, Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost At Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.

In the article, the author assumes that the “gush of wordiness” on book covers is a result of desperation in publishing, of people desperate to have their books noticed when they’re sure they will fail. Other speculate it’s because of search engines, while others suggest it’s part of good marketing.

This subtitle phenomenon is, as far as I can tell, nearly exclusive to nonfiction. Fiction tries, sometimes, by adding “A Novel” after some titles, but to me that just sounds pretentious, as if the publisher is trying to prove the book is Literature-with-a-capital-L by making sure we know it’s a novel and not some mere book. Personally, I’d love it if fiction started to embrace subtitles more, vamping up covers to make books seem more appealing.

But for now, I’m just glad that the extensive, run-on subtitle continues to thrive. Have any favorites you want to share?


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