The former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and the media’s poster boy Raghuram Rajan, has just released his much talked about book, ‘I do what I do’. A more self-evidently lame book title you will be hard pressed to find. Before all you Raghuram Rajan fans become apoplectic over that irreverent comment, let me hasten to add that it was the author’s daughter who said that, and this juicy tidbit was revealed by Rajan himself. With mock parental pride, I might add. The fact that I agree with her is another matter altogether. Clearly a young lady possessed of sterling common sense. As to how the contents of the book justify its strange title I am unable to intelligently comment upon, as I have yet to actually read the book. Which might suggest that I am contemplating ordering the bulky tome, but that would be jumping the gun. Coming in at just under 350 pages, presumably dotted with more than a smattering of graphs and statistical tables, it gives me pause. I am numerically challenged.
I felt, at this juncture, that it would be instructive to examine other well known autobiographical works based purely on the cover title. Whether I have read them or not is completely irrelevant. Most of the titles, as you will observe, are opaque and barely suggestive of the actual contents of the book. Perhaps the publishers and their marketing mavens put their heads together to come up with these extraordinary gems in order to stir the curiosity of potential buyers. After all, every little bit counts when it comes to seducing a naïve sucker ‘who is born every minute’, a quote attributed to P.T. Barnum. The pertinent question is ‘how far do you go with these crazy titles?’After reading this piece, you can make up your own minds. In fairness, I must admit that so-me of them are quite clever and could bring home the bacon, so to speak.
David Niven, that wonderful British actor of yesteryear, he of the clipped moustache and equally clipped English accent, released his best-selling autobiography, ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ in 1972. The mystery behind this curious title is revealed somewhere in the inner recesses of this plump volume. Doubtless Niven’s distinguished visage on the cover would have attracted many an ardent fan, but those sitting on the fence who were letting, in the words of Lady Macbeth, ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’, were going, ‘Why moon? What balloon? You speak in riddles Mr. Niven’. And that just might have cost the publishers a few thousand copies not flying off the shelves. ‘Balloon’s’ success prompted Niven to pen a quick sequel in 1975, ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’. Again, a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, in Churchill’s memorable phrase.
Keith Richards, lead guitarist and fellow composer with his alter ego Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones’ magnificent catalogue, is an extraordinary individual who has taken decadence and converted it into an art form. He recently released his autobiography and it was curiously titled ‘Life’. I say curiously because the black and white cover portrait of Richards dragging on something that is probably more potent than a cigarette, makes him look like death warmed up. It must be his off-beat sense of irony that prompted him to name the book ‘Life’. If I had been Richards’ publishing consultant, I would have advised him to rename the book, ‘Sympathy for the devil’, after one his most famous compositions.
One of my favourite book titles is Gerald Durrell's ‘My family and other animals’. A naturalist and animal lover with a great sense of humour, I had the pleasure of attending one of his talks in Calcutta when he toured India several decades ago. The book itself is a delightful tour de force that captures Durrell's abiding love of fauna. The title of the book is witty and clever in a typically English way. I own an autographed copy!
Nirad C. Chaudhuri has been described as a Bengali-English writer and a man of letters. His most famous work ‘The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’, was celebrated worldwide for its erudition and sharp intellect, but here in India drew brickbats and opprobrium. Chaudhuri himself was vilified as a British poodle, and a quintessential brown sahib. Those in India who mocked him found much to cavil at regarding the book title and its ironic dedication ‘to the memory of the British Empire in India’. The fact that he died in his adopted homeland and even had a memorial blue plaque placed on Lathbury Road in North Oxford, only reinforced that belief amongst many prickly and thin skinned Indians. For all that, the cover title seems entirely appropriate.
As for titles that should qualify for the wooden spoon, entirely lacking in imagination (not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the book itself), I have a few suggestions. Ace sprinter Milkha Singh’s ‘The race of my life’, and Yuvraj Singh’s ‘The Test of my life', are pedestrian to say the least. The latter was clearly referring to his cricketing career as well as his unfortunate bout with cancer. However the capital letter ‘T’ in the word ‘Test’ was superfluous and forced. Yuvraj’s Test career was unremarkable, though we salute his brave joust with the Big C, his happy recovery and successful return to his forte, international limited overs cricket.
Two great autobiographical works that could have been better served in terms of their titles are Helen Keller’s ‘The story of my life’ and Anne Frank’s ‘The diary of a young girl’. One could be critical of the triteness of the titles, but who am I to carp given the enormous empathy and success they achieved? Keller and Frank would have wiped the floor with the best of them, even with a blank cover. The title of Charlie Chaplin's best-selling ‘My Autobiography’, apart from being trite, can also be faulted tautologically. By definition, an autobiography refers to the first person singular, so the word ‘my’ is clearly surplus to requirements. Fine book, though.
It is well said that you should never judge a book by its cover. Though I do fervently believe a snappy title can help matters along and convert the casual browser to a buyer....