The Familiar and the Unfamiliar

Do you have a favorite book title? One that is memorable and interesting, all the while telling you just what the book is about?

Here’s another perspective on what makes an ideal nonfiction book title. Previously I wrote that the ideal title employed two elements: content and creativity. You can also think of them as the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The Familiar
It is critical to signal to a potential reader what a book is about, what category or genre it is in. Readers looking for a history book don’t want to be confused by or have to wade through dozens or hundreds of titles which may be history, how-to, business, self-help or religion. They want to know immediately which to ignore and which to focus on. So there needs to be something in the title that clearly and quickly signals the familiar–in particular the genre and the specific area under consideration, with which a reader would have at least a previous passing acquaintance.

The Unfamiliar
At the same time, a book can’t seem to be just the same as other books. Something has to make it stand out, seem different, interesting, dramatic, helpful, arresting. There needs to be a creative flair.

You’ve heard this before: the best titles do both.

Here’s some bestselling history samples from a recent Amazon list.

7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century

The Lost City of Z: A Deadly Tale of Obsession in the Amazon

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in the First Age of Terror

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Actually, these titles aren’t perfect in my mind. They tend to rely too much on the subtitle to convey the familiar, the content. But the titles are arresting. Also, two of the titles that don’t clearly convey content (Team of Rivals and Collapse) are written by superstar, previously bestselling authors. As I’ve said before, it just doesn’t matter as much what the title is when the author is already very well-known.

The two, I think, that best combine the familiar with the unfamiliar, creativity with content, are The Lost City of Z and The Day Wall Street Exploded. Both convey specific information and intrigue. The one looks to be a true-life Indiana Jones; the other says it’s a dramatic slice of economics in the United States.

Who said history was boring?

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

2 thoughts on “The Familiar and the Unfamiliar”

  1. History definitely is not boring. I tend to read non-fiction and sometimes selected fiction but usually if I know the author. Recently I read David McCullough’s “Mornings on Horseback”. I thoroughly enjoyed this book referred to by a friend. I had not ever read anything by this author but had a book by him in my own library “Truman.” I had not read it. Now I am reading this one, and have just received “John Adams” after enjoying the first one by this author and well into the second one.
    We have a winter book club at our condo building and the leader tends to only have people read what she calls modern classic fiction. I do not like it and bowed out very quickly, but one of the other girls in the group started suggesting books she had that she thought I’d like and that’s where I found David McCullough. In my book, he’s an excellent author. I love history and especially American History and he fits my bill.
    Thanks for your blog on reading, I enjoy it.

    Lorelie Linton

  2. Hi Lorelie

    McCullough is definitely one of the best narrative historians around, and a favorite of mine. “Truman” and “John Adams” are both great reads, as is “1776.” I’ve never been disappointed in anything I’ve read by him.


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