Subtitles: Explaining everything

March 2, 2013

Ah, the subtitle.

It is what to wear for the discerning nonfiction tome. Perusing the New York Times’ 20 bestselling nonfiction books for this week, one finds that 16 of the volumes deploy a subtitle that aids the potential reader in understanding just what the author’s going on about.

Among them are “Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever” by Martin Dugard, “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others” by Daniel H. Pink and “A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II” by Adam Makos.

Makos’ subtitle is the clear standout here, as it goes so far as to clarify the idea that World War II’s skies were torn by war. It loses points, however, for not saying whether it was World War II or another war that tore the skies.

These titles are reminiscent of older monikers, such as “De immitatione Christi et de contemptu mundi in vulgari sermone,” a 15th-century religious text by Ioannes Gerson, or Swift’s “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships,” better known as “Gulliver’s Travels.”

More in line with the modern fashion for brevity is Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose bestselling memoir bears the inscrutable title “My Beloved World.”

To what world does Sotomayor refer? Is it Neptune? If it is Neptune, why does she love it so much? Is a member of the nation’s highest court in league with the Neptunians? Has Bill O’Reilly been informed of this? If only Sotomayor had used a subtitle, these questions might have been laid to rest immediately.

O’Reilly himself, in league with a co-author, the aforementioned Martin Dugard, has a subtitle of his own on the bestseller list. “Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot” details the steps required to start a successful greenhouse business. Or it’s about the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. One of the preceding sentences is untrue.

I caught a bad case of subtitle fever looking over all the subtitles out there. My doctor tried to say it was actually gastroenteritis, but I’m pretty sure she was wrong and it’s the subtitles that have me all hot and bothered. I couldn’t help but come up with a few of my own:

• Eating Pennies: A History of Pennies as They Are Eaten Here and Abroad

• On the Cusp: A Toothsome Inquiry into the Nature of Dentistry and Becoming

• Shuffled: The Changing Game of Playing Card Manufacture: 2003-Present

Try creating some subtitles at home. One of the beautiful things about our always-on, connected society is that we never know where the next great subtitleist is going to come from. It could be you!

Dave Penn is a copy editor for the Observer-Reporter. Contact him at



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