Robert Louis Stevenson and books of influence

dr. Jekyll and Mr HydeRegardless if you are an avid reader with several books piled upon the nightstand, a casual reader of magazines that you scan while patiently (or impatiently) sit in the waiting room of the dentist, or the week-end “I have such little time” reader; there is likely to be a favorite title that left an impression upon you somewhere tucked away from the past. For if the author has caught your attention and hooked you through to the very final page… your literary experience may have endured a positive influence upon you.

Positioning a book on your favorite list may have occurred because of the writer’s style; maybe it was because of a particular character that reminded you of yourself or even someone you wished to be like, and then there is the plot…the story –line that kept you on the very edge of your seat or ushered you away on an unforgettable journey. Regardless of the reason, books placed on a pedestal are meant to be shared and there is nothing more satisfying then ruminating over a good story with someone else that has enjoyed the same book.

Most of us have many “favorite” titles… for similar to ice cream… there are numerous flavors that are quite satisfying. It reminds me of an analogy … ‘ice cream is to mystery as chocolate is to genre’ …the relationship phrase here is “type”. In view of the fact that we often have ‘favorites’ that cross over into different genres or “types” of books; one has to wonder then what were the favorite titles of some of our great writers. For their taste would most likely not be “plain vanilla” but rather a scoop that was laced with other delicacies …perhaps “rocky road” or “vanilla fudge swirl”. But then, maybe not….

Robert Louis Stevenson_lib. congressOn that delicious note I bring us back to our esteemed thinker: Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish author of celebrated novels and poetry that graced so many of our shelves. Mr. Stevenson was also a distinguished essayist, whereby I have extracted a small portion from his Essays in The Art of Writing and placed it on today’s blog. Steal a moment’s pause out of your hectic day for some words by from our famed writer…

“….The most influential books, and the truest in their influence, are works of fiction. They do not pin the reader to a dogma, which he must afterwards discover to be inexact; they do not teach him a lesson, which he must afterwards unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the lessons of life; they disengage us from ourselves, they constrain us to the acquaintance of others; and they show us the web of experience, not as we can see it for ourselves, but with a singular change—that monstrous, consuming ego of ours being, for the nonce, struck out. To be so, they must be reasonably true to the human comedy; and any work that is so serves the turn of instruction. But the course of our education is answered best by those poems and romances where we breathe a magnanimous atmosphere of thought and meet generous and pious characters. Shakespeare has served me best. Few living friends have had upon me an influence so strong for good as Hamlet or Rosalind… Perhaps my dearest and best friend outside of Shakespeare is D’Artagnan—the elderly D’Artagnan of the Vicomte de Bragelonne. I know not a more human soul, nor, in his way, a finer; I shall be very sorry for the man who is so much of a pedant in morals that he cannot learn from the Captain of Musketeers. Lastly, I must name the Pilgrim’s Progress, a book that breathes of every beautiful and valuable emotion…”

A.A. Milne and titles

milne As time goes by the meaning of everyday words can change. Let’s take the word branding as an example. According to its etymology this word originates way back to the Old English when it was defined as: burning, a burning piece of wood or torch. However, to the 21st century ear a brand ( used as a noun) is the idea or image marketed to a particular service or product. Branding (used as a verb) is equated with a marketing strategy of creating a name or symbol that identifies that product from others. If the branding is successful then the consumer identifies and differentiates your product, hopefully, in a favorable light.

So why all this blogging about branding and brand…well let’s think about the author…how he or she consciously or unconsciously uses branding…. I would have to say the initial “impression” we wish our readers find appealing or attractive is established first by way of the title. After all, that is really the first thing that sets off a piece from another. Considerable time is spent trying to come up with that perfect title, the one that defines your story with just enough of a subtle nudge to get someone interested. If however you are already a household-name author, such as Stephen King, you have already established your “brand” and c’est la vie…you will not lie awake at night trying to come up with that wit or metaphor embedded in your title that literally screams off the shelf or wows the reader.

So, today I bring back A.A. Milne …yes, the same guy who wrote Winnie –the- Poo…but let me remind you that he has many other titles under his belt…who has written a clever piece that will give you a smile or a nod of “yes, I get it” regarding titles. Here is a sampling of his essay “Labels” neatly extracted from his book titled, “Not that it Matters.”

bookshelf blk and white

The Labels

“….I have been reading the titles of the books. That is not so good (or bad) as reading the books themselves, but it enables me to say that I have heard of such and such a novel, and in some cases it does give me a slight clue to what goes on inside.

I should imagine that the best part of writing a novel was the choosing a title. My idea of a title is that it should be something which reflects the spirit of your work and gives the hesitating purchaser some indication of what he is asked to buy. To call your book Ethnan Frame or Esther Grant or John Temple or John Merridew (I quote from the index) is to help the reader not at all. All it tells him is that one of the characters inside will be called John or Esther—a matter, probably, of indifference to him…

But if you don’t call your book Phyllis or John Temple or Mrs. Elmsley, what—I hear you asking—are you to call it? Well, you might call it Kapak, as I see somebody has done. The beauty of Kapak as a title is that if you come into the shop by the back entrance, and so approach the book from the wrong end, it is still Kapak. A title which looks the same from either end is of immense advantage to an author…

Another mystery title is The Man with Thicker Beard, which probably means something. It is like Kapak in this, that it reads equally well backwards; but it is not so subtle. Still, we should probably be lured on to buy it. On the other hand, A Welsh Nightingale and a Would-be Suffragette is just the sort of book to which we would not be tempted by the title. It is bad enough to have to say to the shopman, “Have you A Welsh Nightingale and a Would-be Suffragette?” but if we forgot the title, as we probably should, and had to ask at random for a would-be nightingale and a Welsh suffragette, or a wood nightingale and a Welsh rabbit, or the Welsh suffragette’s night in gaol, we should soon begin to wish that we had decided on some quite simple book such as Greed, Earth, or Jonah.

And this is why a French title is always such a mistake. Authors must remember that their readers have not only to order the book, in many cases, verbally, but also to recommend it to their friends. So I think Mr. Oliver Onions made a mistake when he called his collection of short stories Pot au Feu. It is a good title, but it is the sort of title to which the person to whom you are recommending the book always answers, “What?” And when people say “What?” in reply to your best Parisian accent, the only thing possible for you is to change the subject altogether. But it is quite time that we came to some sort of decision as to what makes the perfect title. Kapak will attract buyers, as I have said, though to some it may not seem quite fair. Excellent from a commercial point of view, it does not satisfy the conditions we laid down at first. The title, we agreed, must reflect the spirit of the book. In one sense Five Gallons of Gasolene does this, but of course nobody could ask for that in a book-shop…”