Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Our Favorite Book Titles, Part Nine

This time it's a three-way tie. These books all carry titles so provocative that they guarantee I'd at least stop a moment at the bookstore and take a quick flip-through. Here they are: Are You There God? It's Me, Kevin--A Memoir (the title is apparently a play on a popular Judy Blume book for children). Also Who's Been Sleeping In Your Head--The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies. And finally, What Men Don't Tell Women About Business--Opening Up the Heavily Guarded Alpha Male Playbook. To review earlier Favorite Book Titles, go here.


At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Lord, what is this world coming to? Not long ago, many well-intentioned book readers had to come to grips with the fact that as they matured in life (i.e., as adulthood responsibilities spread like lava over the luxuries of youth), they had to increasingly rely on resources like the NYT book review, because that was about as close as they would come to actually reading a book from start to finish. Even more recently, content producers realized with the immeasurable growth of the Internet, it wasn’t just books that weren’t being read, it was articles. I recall one response to this phenom by one of the young wunderkind scribes from Slate or Salon, who for a time produced a blog-like resource that offered to free busy content consumers from slogging through long articles. Instead, he slogged through them and produced Cliff-note like summaries. I’m not sure if this operation is still up and running, but that partly tongue-in-cheek time saver was in some ways a bit sinister with its “trust me to do your reading” promises. And now here we have YMMB (aka, Mr. WWW) presenting the readership with yet another handy list of his favorite titles, the implication being of course, that most of us these days have only time to appreciate the titles of books, not the actual books themselves. Now, now, I’m needling you know (a little bit, anyway), and honestly, the real reason I’m writing is that I’m a bit mystified as to why Adrienne Zurub’s new book-—her first, in fact—-did not make your latest list. I'm referring, of course, to today's paper. I can’t say that I’ve ever read the front page of the Plain Dealer and felt a combination of these sensations: giddy, weak-kneed, flush, empowered, and dare I say, a bit randy? Usually it takes a special episode of “Real Housewives of Orange County” or “The L Word" to elicit a convergence of these wondrous sensations, but here it was this morning, in a Plain Dealer story about a nurse, a newbie author no less, and quite possibly soon to be Cleveland’s most famous writer. She is certainly my new muckraking hero and I’ve already skipped over to Amazon to order a copy of "Notes from the Mothership,” her unprecedented memoir about working at the cleveland clinic. I had an aunt who was a nurse there for some time and I can tell you, the few passages that the PD reporter referenced all ring true. Better yet, sister Zurub is suing the Clinic because--can you imagine such a thing?--she was fired when they learned about the book. Thankfully, Zurub feels emboldened rather than contrite and is planning a follow up. Needless to say, this is the bees knees as far as local literary developments go. It’s like a combination of Erin Brockovich taking on Pacific Gas and Electric and Dan Brown blasting open the impenetrable doors of the Vatican. Oh what a wonderful treat…


At 11:57 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You said it well, as always, dear Madchen (by now we can tell your electric style from 10 miles away). The ongoing, partly tongue-in-cheek Slate series (dubbed "series skipper") you mention is no longer, but I recall it fondly too. It tried to make the point that too many major newspaper series were far too long and ponderous, often executed more to win awards than serve the reader. I think it went out with the founding editor, Mike Kinsley.

Anyway, here's Slate's Mickey Kaus's description of the thinking behind it, from 2001: "What are the four most discouraging words you can read in a newspaper? "First of a series," says Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. He's right! Nothing saps a reader's will faster than the prospect of giving over a large portion of the week to some bloated journalistic project driven by egos and internal institutional needs. But, until now, there was little an individual consumer could do about it. You could set the series aside each day, in a growing pile to be read in some future era. But what if it contained something juicy? What if Part 3 jumped to the "B" section, which you already threw out? You could go to cocktail parties and subtly grill your friends. ("There wasn't much in that endless Times thing ... was there?") But what if they haven't read it either--and have been hoping to grill you? At dark moments like this, if a newspaper series looks worthy enough, it's almost as if you have no alternative but to read it.
Or so it seemed. Until now!"

As for that no-doubt fascinating roman a clef you mention by the Clinic nurse, there's a simple reason I didn't mention it: because like you and everyone else I know, I only learned about it today, through the PD's account. I'm guessing it's not even yet available in bookstores. You'll note that this piece is written by Mike McIntire, who writes a very good column full of newsy tips (appropriately named Tipoff). So this item was no doubt from a tip he received, and it was newsworthy enough to receive larger treatment, and appear on the front page. I'm looking forward to reading the book (or at least scanning it, to your point) sometime soon.

Finally, as to the matter of my motivation for sharing intriguing book titles, you've missed my intention a bit. That little running feature is not unlike nearly everything else that appears here, including many links to articles online: my hope is to share things I think are interesting and valuable, in hopes some readers at least will click on them (when online, or find them in the bookstore or library when not) and read them. That would include any books I mention (though with the appropriate warning that I'm not vouching for any books I haven't read), along with articles whose first paragraph I admire (the subject of another running series). These are important elements in getting readers' attention.

There's a writing lesson there, too: you can write the world's most scintillating, enlightening and beautiful book or article, but if you can't grab someone's attention with a title, they won't even stop to skim it. And if the headline or subhead grabs their attention enough to prompt them to read the first paragraph, they won't stick around for the rest if you haven't somehow hooked them with the beginning. Which is why a lot of veteran writers spend fully half (or more) of their time on a lead paragraph or two, and half on the rest of the article.


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