Telling Tales with Book Titles

by Owen

In the age of scrutinising the bookshelves of others on Zoom, there rises a new opportunity for creativity and storytelling. This is an opportunity that those working in libraries and bookshops have already mastered: forming book displays that tell a story through their titles.

A famous recent example of such storytelling features Prime Minister Boris Johnson making the mistake of recording a press conference in a school library without checking the background beforehand. A rather cunning librarian snuck in a head-height display, featuring such titles as The Subtle Knife, Fahrenheit 451, Betrayed, Glass Houses and The Twits. A very unique form of protest.

Political demonstrations aside, book title displays can be an amusing form of storytelling and sometimes even poetry. Here are a couple of tips on how to make best use of your own personal library to convey messages that leave amusing impressions.

Finding the Right Titles

You’ll be surprised at how many titles there are these days that aren’t just simple names and nouns. Some begin with prepositions like ‘To’ and ‘Of’. These are gold dust for book title storytelling and should be cherished and used sparingly. If you find any titles on your bookshelves that sound like they could be the middle or end of a sentence, keep them handy.

            What you probably won’t be short of are books that begin with ‘A’ or ‘The’ or a person’s name. These are ideal for beginning and ending the book display. If you use them in the middle, make sure you have a relevant preposition title ready or else the final arrangement might seem disjointed.

            For example:

As you can see, titles like For All Occasions and On a Wing and a Prayer join the rest of the free-standing titles together and make this display more than just a collection of short contained statements.

            Then again, there is something to be said in favour of book displays featuring single nouns, especially abstract ones like in the following arrangement:

One could argue that there is no story within this display. However there is a poetic feel to this monosyllabic line-up. That being said the arrangement is sorely missing punctuation: the creator intended for Indiscretion to precede Mad with a colon or hyphen and for there to be a full stop between Style and Kudos. This breakdown in meaning is unfortunately a fault of most book displays, which are reliant on the reader filling in such blanks. If you are so inclined, you could create cut-out punctuation marks to make your intended meaning clearer.

Playing with Genre

Depending on the genres you prefer to read and collect in your own personal library, you might have the chance to set up a specific theme for your book title story.

            Drawing from a collection of crime novels, the following short arrangement was made:

Crime novels often have phrase titles with a particular focus on nursery rhymes, folk tales and other cautions from childhood (e.g. Don’t Talk to Strangers). As such you can create a display that is even creepier than the individual books. Then again this reading will be effected by the often dark and bloody covers: otherwise there is the potential for a more wholesome interpretation.

            Similarly romance novels often have phrase titles too, ranging from song titles, film quotes and riffs on classic novels. There often is an informal and gossipy meaning attached to such titles which allows for a book display story to sound like it has been overheard. For example:

            The short, contained nature of each constituent title is noticeable but, considering casual words like ‘girl’ and romantic phrases like Nobody’s Baby and A Brief Affair, this arrangement can be imagined as the highlights of an indiscreet conversation about someone else’s love life.

            With regards to genre, entertainment is very much in the eye of the beholder. Some people who look upon your display may dislike the story it seems to tell or may not even register it. Even so one should never underestimate what even a passing glance notices.

Found Displays

You might not think people generally interpret book display titles. Of course, that may be true but the eye often notices inconsistencies and patterns, especially when it comes to everyday language.

            For instance, how does this chance sighting make you feel?

            Notice anything irregular? What does the repetition of the title An Echo of Murder make you think of?

            Some might argue that there isn’t anything particularly striking about two copies of the same book which feature the word ‘echo’. However, can the same be said of this discovery?

            Isn’t that an odd occurrence? It almost seems deliberate, doesn’t it? Even so it isn’t.

            Now the question becomes what does seeing four copies of Make Me put you in mind of?

            Some might say it is just neat organisation: four hardbacks in a row with one paperback at the end. Some might describe it as annoying. A few might even note that the titles read from left to right sound like something a mocking child might chant. Either way, you’ve noticed something there. You’ve read meaning into a handful of circumstantial words. Imagine what meaning you could create deliberately with the right arrangement of books, what stories you could tell, albeit sneakily.

            So go out and baffle your family, friends and workmates. Make them doubletake as they browse the book shelf in your background. Most importantly though, have fun with the literature you proudly show off to the world.

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