March 01, 2013

The Diagram Prize: hunting the oddest book title




Every year at this time, in a little island kingdom far to the North, as the crocuses start poking through the snow, Horace Bent of The Bookseller announces his shortlist for the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title and opens the voting, regaling the literary scene with a bright and eagerly anticipated annual recurrence of its own.

And yet, and yet.

For many years, Mr. Bent could do no wrong in my eyes. How could he, the man who brought to our attention Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, the first-ever Diagram Prize winner (35 years ago, when the prize originated as a way of staving off boredom at the Frankfurt Book Fair), and went on to select such gems as Highlights in the History of Concrete, How to Avoid Huge Ships, Reusing Old Graves, Bondage for Beginners and my favourite, Greek Postmen and their cancellation numbers.

I loved the way Mr Bent disdained the odd title for odd title's sake, or as he saw it, just for the sake of winning his "prestigious award", or even, perhaps, although this doesn't seem to be part of Mr. Bent's mindset (curious perhaps for one employed by the UK's definitive book industry publication), or maybe he's too polite to mention it, to sell more books. And then last year, an about-face as Cooking with Poo took the prize. So attention-grabbing, so obvious, compared to the multinuanced, admirably earnest Designing High Performance Stiffened Structures from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

Over the last few years I've watched the deliberately odd title proliferate ever more among each succeeding year's offerings, to the point that this year they make up 2/3 of the offering. And let's face it, even the earnestly odd titles, all two of them, are not show-stoppers.

Here is the shortlist:

Was Hitler Ill? by Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann (Polity)

Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts by Jerry Gagne (Foy’s Pet Supplies)  

How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees (Melville House)

God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis by Tom Hickman (Square Peg)

Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop by Reginald Bakeley (Conari)

How Tea Cosies Changed the World by Loani Prior (Murdoch).


Was Hitler Ill? I'm not sure I'd call this title odd at all, except for how, depending on your font of choice, it can look as if it's about Hitler's grandson, Hitler III. I know about this because it used to always happen to me with North Korean dictators, eg Kim Jong Ill. Oops, Il.

Actually, with many dictators, although not with Hitler, there comes a moment when people start asking not if they are ill, but if they are actually dead, and just stuffed and propped up in the reviewing box for picture-taking on important occasions.

The library catalogue gives the original German title, which is a fascinating case of a phrase almost making sense in two different languages:

War Hitler Crank?

I think we can answer a resounding yes to that.

Lofts of North America: Pigeon lofts. There is a Yiddish expression for what I want to say here, but I don't know how to write it. There's also an Italian hand gesture, the one where you put out your hand palm down and wiggle it as if you were playing the piano. But I actually voted for this one, just to remind Mr Bent that there are some purists still around. (I note that the North American pigeons have not arrived in the Southern hemisphere yet so no book about their lofts at Auckland Libraries. When I see a flock of pigeons in spanking new trainers, ankle socks, and tucked-in t-shirts I'll yell out.)


How to Sharpen Pencils.  Similar to the above. The author is an ex-political cartoonist who had himself photographed in a white shirt a la Anthony Bourdain, but lacking his Hell's Kitchen carnality. On the other hand, let's not forget we're talking comics here.

God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. Maybe we could make one good title out of two: Was Hitler's penis ill?

Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop. Mr Bent, leave chickens alone. You will never surpass The joy of chickens which you gave us a few years back.  

How Tea Cosies Changed the World. My case rests. Blatantly cashing in on the current trendiness of tea cosies.

Obviously I need to find out how to nominate titles. I think this one is a good candidate, for example:

Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide: Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog by Brenda Aloff

I don't say dogs don't have a language - of a type - but don't you have to speak to have a Native Language? Plus, you've got to love the way the colons turn the title into a series of yips. Yip yip yip: yip yip yip: yip yip yip yip yip.

And how about The Little Book of Slugs, ed. by Allan Shepherd and Suzanne Gallant?

The description of this book contains further gems, such as that you'll find details of "slug lifestyles". I'm guessing the couch potato slug, the gym bunny slug...

Mathematics forums, conferences, catalogues etc. offer a fertile hunting ground as well. Right off my first click I found an excellent Degenerate Diffusions, which included a discussion of the controlled martingale problem, and of which I can't remember the author's name, unlike the next one I came across, a case of a normal title (Mathematics for the millions) boasting an excellent odd author name, Lancelot Hogben.

And then, lo, my best find yet! Title and author both odd:

Mathematical Cranks
by Underwood Dudley

I see myself meeting this author one day on some North American --not loft, let's say a university campus, in a faculty lounge smelling of percolated coffee. I spy him dabbing at his nose with a crumpled tissue and I call out "War crank, Dudley?"

Read more about the Diagram Prize at The Bookseller.

And do this: vote for your favourite title at We Love This Book. Winner announced 22 March.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 18:00
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