On the outside looking in

A 9th-century manuscript containing the works of Gregory of Tours, whose title or ‘incipit’ is given in red ink at the beginning of the text: ‘Here begins [incipit] the first book of miracles…’

Titles tend to be located as much outside the text as inside.

It took titles centuries to achieve this ambiguity.

In the beginning, there were no titles, and God saw that it was good. Then on the sixth day, titles emerged from the magnificent chaos of the main text and found roots and settled down and told their own story.

Titles are never just titles, indices to what follows, markers, signposts, expectation managers. They are observers, sentries sent to scope the land, to gather intelligence, to look on the outside.

Titles may kill a book or become its lifeline. Texts don’t need titles, but they secretly hunger for them.

A good book is good no matter what the title is. A good title is good no matter what the book is.

When titles began their insurrection from the texts which engendered them, readers didn’t pay much attention to them. Later, they were on everyone’s lips. A book’s transmission and reproduction depends on its title.

The oldest titles were descriptive and indicative. The most recent ones are confusing. The world’s oldest titles are perennial. The latest are ephemeral. The best titles can be books in their own lives. The worst titles should be grateful to be titles at all.

We remember titles better than books, and authors better than arguments. Remember that book X written by Y? Titles are designed to brave the elements and defy the tyranny of time, but only a few make it.

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