I’ve just read that the shortlist of six titles has been chosen for this year’s Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. This is the thirty-fifth year that the prize will have been awarded, although I became aware of it myself only a few years ago.
I’m not sure about the candidacy of Was Hitler Ill?, by Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann [Polity]. As I’ve read several books about Hitler’s state of health and his bizarre use of both conventional drugs and quack remedies, this seems to me to be a perfectly logical choice of title – and I’d guess that the authors intend it to convey irony as well (Was Hitler Sane? might make me sit up more).
Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts, by Jerry Gagne [Foy’s Pet Supplies], is perhaps quite amusing, but anyone familiar with the many minority publications that America’s huge population is able to support will know that it is not out-of-the way extraordinary; for example, when I was a bookseller, I remember deciding that the title How to Raise Your Own Barn was unlikely to thrill the UK public library community that I served at the time.
I am slightly disdainful of God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis, by Tom Hickman [Square Peg], as being a bit of a boys’ snigger title (I remember I once attended an author event at which Claire Rayner was speaking, when she amused the audience by saying that she was convinced that ‘every man was born with a ruler in his hot little hand’). I’m sure that Carol Midgley (The Times) would comment very bluntly on this particular choice!
How Tea Cosies Changed the World, by Loani Prior [Murdoch], succeeds with its juxtaposition of the mundane and the all-encompassing, but it doesn’t make me fall about; and Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, by Reginald Bakeley [Conari], is an arresting title, but (as one who lives in an area richly populated by foxes can testify), if ‘Goblin’ is taken as a pseudonym for Mr. Tod, it becomes a perfectly plausible one.
So what is my tip for the award? I’d give the prize to How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees [Melville House]. I take my hat off to anyone who can write a whole book on this topic… And now my quirky memory takes me back more than a couple of decades, to the bossy, humourless teacher of my son’s reception class, who told me with great condemnatory contempt that he spent all of his time sharpening pencils. So sadly uninspiring (by comparison with the many vital, enthusiastic and creative teachers he subsequently had the good fortune to know) was her manner that I could quite understand his interest in playing with a pencil-sharpener, especially (for him) as it was one of those desk-mounted ones, with an exciting handle to turn. I should like to make her a present of this book!
Gosh. I hadn’t realised just how much she still rankles in my memory!