Judging a book by its title

What is it about controversial book titles? Why can’t people stop themselves from jumping all over a title before a book even comes out? What is it about the marketing aspect of titles that drive people to say such stupid things?

Ramesh Ponnuru’s excellent The Party of Death was roundly criticized and dismissed simply because the of the title (or some of the admittedly over-zealous marketing material). Bloggers, Amazon reviewers, and even journalists – all mostly of the liberal variety – arrogantly and ignorantly sniffed that the title was insulting and wrong and that they weren’t going to read the book because the title revealed that it was hopelessly warped.

Ramesh’s fellow National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg has been experiencing the very same thing as he prepares for his book’s release. Today he noted yet another example of this phenomenon.

Here is what Tom Palmer has to say:

A friend just sent me a rather shocked link to Amazon.com’s page for Jonah Goldberg’s new book with the utterly crazy title: “Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Hegel to Whole Foods.” The original subtitle was “The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton.” That one was unhinged enough, but the new title is simply deranged.

[. . .]

I’ve met John Mackey a number of times and I know for a fact that he’s not a “fascist,” nor does he distribute “fascist food.”

I know that authors don’t always come up with the titles or covers of their books, but they do get to veto them. This one is so utterly stupid that I hope that Goldberg is ashamed to show his face in public.

As Jonah noted in his Corner post, this isn’t really an argument so much as a emotional reaction. Palmer seems offended that Whole Foods and fascist appear together in any way. He doesn’t explain why this isn’t a perfectly legitimate teaser to the book. Does the title or subtitle argue that Whole Foods is a totalitarian organization or that the owner, John Mackey, is a fascist? No. It simply suggests that in the process of discussing “Liberal Fascism” and the “Totalitarian Temptation ” Jonah will cover topics as diverse as Hegel and Whole Foods.

I am glad Palmer can vouch for John Mackey and is confident the Whole Foods doesn’t distribute “fascist food” but what does that have to do with anything? Is it really too much to ask that critics read the book and make an attempt to understand the argument before they start assuming that the title and subtitle are “unhinged.”

Tom Palmer asserts that this “is so utterly stupid that I hope that Goldberg is ashamed to show his face in public.” What? Before he goes around calling something “utterly stupid”maybe Mr. Palmer might want to go ahead and flush out an argument about the supposed offense, preferably one that includes logic and reasoning rather than just personal assurances and bluster.

Let me repeat, the subtitle “The Totalitarian Temptation from Hegel to Whole Foods” does not automatically mean, or imply, that Whole Foods or John Mackey are fascist or totalitarian. Rather, in the age old tradition or book marketing it is designed to intrigue potential buyers and readers: Liberal Fascism? Hegel and Whole Foods? Just what is this Goldberg talking about? I had better buy this book and find out!

It is called marketing and it is rather prevalent these days. And on occasion it might even use controversy or shock value to catch-readers attention. I would think libertarians might be familiar with it.

Can we all just agree that we will not post sloppy attacks on books simply because of their titles? I am not even arguing that you have to read the book cover to cover. Don’t like the title or subtitle but don’t want to spend good money on it? When the book comes out go the public library and take a look. Read the introduction, the conclusion, key parts of key chapters, etc. Then you can say: I haven’t read the whole book, but it seems to me that book “X” is making a ridiculous argument by saying “Y.” Easy enough, no?

And I think Mr. Palmer should feel free to show his face in public even though he posted an emotional rant utterly lacking in logic or reason and without the common courtesy of reading a book before attacking the argument.

***I should note that I consider both Jonah and Ramesh friends so make of that what you will.***
UPDATE: Please see this post for additional disclosure.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. This is how we market these days ! From Ward Churchill to Ann Coulter & Jonah we have somehow managed to stop talking to the other side. Jonah, who I consider a reasonable man for the most part, with this title, has at least one less buyer. But then again, politically, we live in the era of Karl Rove and you first need to shore up your base. Jonah with his celebrity will sell a lot of books . The Corner will hype it and so will talk radio. But he is not going to change one mind. If that was his intent he should have chosen a different title.

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