In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys some of the best funny book titles courtesy of How to Avoid Huge Ships
Old Tractors and the Men Who Love Them. How to Avoid Huge Ships. How Green Were the Nazis? Highlights of the History of Concrete. The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America. What to Say When You Talk to Yourself. Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers. Italian Without Words. The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History and Its Role in the World Today. These are all genuine book titles, which are included in How to Avoid Huge Ships: And Other Implausibly Titled Books, a 2008 compendium of some of the best funny book titles over the years which I discovered in a charity shop for £1.50.
As you can imagine, books like How to Avoid Huge Ships and Other Implausibly Titled Books is exactly the kind of book that appeals here at IL Towers, although we’ll admit that such a book is heavier on the ‘interesting’ than on the ‘literature’. Most of these books are niche publications, non-fiction works which appeal to a very small but, one imagines, eager readership: the train-spotters and marmalade-obsessives, if you will. This is a book designed as a novelty present, a Christmas gift for a friend who is a book-lover with a fondness for the quirky.
How to Avoid Huge Ships and Other Implausibly Titled Books is light on detail: we learn very little about the individual titles which feature. Indeed, there’s very little beyond the titles. But what makes it worth a look (and ‘look’ here is probably more apt than ‘read’) is the fact that a full-page image of the book’s cover is included for each title. So although the only additional information offered about C. Anne Wilson’s The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History and Its Role in the World Today (Pennsylvania Press, 1999) is the single sentence ‘All you could ever wish to know about marmalade’, we are treated to a picture of the book’s jacket, featuring a half-peeled orange, a lemon, a half-orange and a jar of the finished preserve.
Others, such as Kaz Cooke’s Living with Crazy Buttocks (Penguin, 2001), is described as a ‘novel’ – although perhaps the word ‘novel’ here is meant to be an adjective as much as a noun. Whose Bottom? is subtitled A Lift-the-Flap Book, and was published in 2000 by distinguished children’s publishers Ladybird Books. The cover depicts a tiger, whose face is obscured in the undergrowth, leaving only his posterior and tail in view. Sticking with the animal kingdom, James K. Wangberg’s Six-Legged Sex: The Erotic Lives of Bugs (Fulcrum, 2001), which announces exactly what the book is about, has perhaps the most accurate and sensible title of all the funny book titles featured. Only those into threesomes or bestiality are likely to be disappointed with false expectations.
Although it is not the job of such a book, one thing which How to Avoid Huge Ships and Other Implausibly Titled Books does, through presenting these funniest of book titles to us along with their often equally bizarre cover images, is invite us to think about how much of this is down to canny marketing on behalf of publishers and how much is optimistic but misguided sincerity on the part of the authors. Did the authors of Entertaining with Insects choose this title for their cookbook, or was it thrust upon them by an insistent publisher? (It’s a cookery book about – you’ve guessed it – how to make meals containing insects.) Was The Anger of Aubergines Bulbul Sharma’s first choice for the collection of her short stories published by Spinefex Press in 1998, or did a commissioning editor suggest it would be more eye-catching and memorable than her original title? One cannot choose but wonder.
But the main purpose of How to Avoid Huge Ships: And Other Implausibly Titled Books is, of course, entertainment, and to raise a smile if not a laugh-out-loud response as the reader turns the pages and discovers another double-page spread of visual and lexical oddness. If, as Jacques Derrida said, a title is always a promise, then this book certainly delivers: one could hardly wish for a more bizarre range of book titles than the ones collected here.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.