Entitlement

Two elements go into the making of a modern book: a Title, and a Text. I used to think an author should spend about equal time on each of these elements. If the Text took a year to compose, then he should take twelve months more on the Title. If it took five years, he will need the rest of the decade. But now I think the “filler” is much less important. Not even the book reviewers care.

Depending on the Title, the book should weigh either more or less. Note: using large type is cheating. Everyone will see through that device, by opening the book only once. A truly heavy book will have smaller type, and lots of footnotes set even smaller. This doesn’t necessarily cost more time to write, however. A capable and efficient academic hack should be able to turn out twelve pages a day; and hire a teaching assistant to generate the footnotes.

Gentle reader may object that other elements ought to be considered. The painter Degas complained that he was full of ideas, but couldn’t write a thing. The poet Mallarm√© replied, helpfully, that, “Poems are not made out of ideas. They are made out of words.” The same goes for literature of any other sort.

Sub-titles are a distraction. Academics are addicted to them. They stray upon a good Title (rarely), then ruin it with a feigning discursion. They should bury all such posturing in the copy-text itself, where it will be safe from a reader’s eyes. Too, mind that the chapter-headings aren’t pretentious: some readers may examine the Table of Contents. Save the posturing for just the one big hit.

A wise author (I’m only naming Frenchmen today), once advised his fellows to write magazine articles if they were “full of ideas.” Some range may be permitted in the glossier periodicals. But a book must be a narrow thing. Choose your spike and pound it again and again, at least through the Preface, in case anyone reads that.

Over the years, buying books at second-hand, I have had to endure underlining and marginalia. But these invariably stop by page seven; and usually after page three — unless the book has an Index. Then all bets are off. Readers may go hunting for references to other books they haven’t read. Famous people will scour for their own names. There could be hell to pay, when they find them. Or worse, if they don’t.

This is why copy-text is such a thorn in the side of an author. Having ghost-written half-a-dozen books myself, for people who could barely type, I know what a nuisance filling pages can be. If your income is so low that you must take such commissions, always insist on a nickel a word. A dime if you can get it.

My remarks above were occasioned by the latest visitor to the High Doganate. Noticing my library, he asked the perennial question: “Have you read all these books?” I try to answer this question facetiously, but in a different way, each time it is asked — blaming my tastes on an interior decorator, or whatever comes to mind.

“No,” I replied yesterday. “But I have read all the titles.”