Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sham on You: Reflections on Dummy Book Titles

There is the occasional pastime on Twitter where twitterites participate in making up humorous book titles based on existing book titles. One I recall was under the hashtag 'Junk Food Novels.' My wife came up with quite a few such as The Spoils of Poutine, The End of the Eclair, and The Hors d'oeuvres of Gilbert Pinfold among many others. Such a pastime can find its roots not only in basic word play, but in sham book titles created for dummy books for library doors in English historic country house libraries. Doors that would be camouflaged in bibliographic detail in order to hide a main entrance, a passage to another room, a hidden staircase, or merely a closet where the owner might keep the cigars. Booksellers were often requested to provide interesting titles for these curiosities, perhaps even changing them from time to time when the titles became rather, old.

I can imagine that the bookbinders would enjoy arriving at humorous titles and plying the gold leaf on to these more than decorative bindings. The library doors of Chatsworth and Gad's Hill have some interesting examples. (The picture is of Oxburgh Hall.)

Lamb on the Death of Wolfe.
Cursory Remarks on Swearing.
John Knox on Death's Door.
Boyle on Steam.
Lever on Lifts.
The Scottish Boccaccio by D. Cameron.
Dr. Kitchener's Life of Captain Cook.
Mr. J. Horner on Poet's Corner.

On Sore Throat and the Migration of the Swallow.
The Corn Question by John Bunyan.
The Art of Turning by Handle.
Bleak Houses.
The Male Coach.
Lochs and Quays of England.
Plurality of Living With Regard to the Common Cat.
Nine Tails by a Cat.
On Cutting off Heirs with a Shilling.

For additional titles, my old blog Postman's Horn has a letter by Thomas Hood which provides a few.

In Aldous Huxley's early novel, Crome Yellow (1921) there is a scene in a country house library which I shall leave off with a quote:

For their after-luncheon coffee the party generally adjourned to the library. Its windows looked east, and at this hour of the day it was the coolest place in the whole house. It was a large room, fitted, during the eighteenth century, with white painted shelves of an elegant design. In the middle of one wall a door, ingeniously upholstered with rows of dummy books, gave access to a deep cupboard, where among a pile of letter-files and old newspapers, the mummy-case of an Egyptian lady, brought back by the second Sir Fernando on his return from the Grand Tour, mouldered in the darkness. From ten yards away and at a first glance, one might almost have mistaken this secret door for a section of shelving filled with genuine books. Coffee-cup in hand, Mr. Scogan was standing in front of the dummy book-shelf. Between the sips he discoursed.

"The bottom shelf," he was saying, "is taken up by an Encyclopaedia in fourteen volumes. Useful, but a little dull, as is also 'Caprimulge's Dictionary of the Finnish Language.' The 'Biograhical Dictionary' looks more promising. 'Biography of Men who were Born Great,' 'Biography of Men who Achieved Greatness,' 'Biography of Men who had Greatness Thrust Upon Them,' and 'Biography of Men who were Never Great at All.' Then there are ten volumes of 'Thom's Works and Wanderings,' while the 'Wild Goose Chase, A Novel,' by an anonymous author, fills no less than six. But what's this, what's this?" Mr. Scogan stood on tiptoe and peered up. "Seven volumes of the 'Tales of Knockespotch.' The 'Tales of Knockespotch,' he repeated. "Ah, my dear Henry," he said, turning round, "these are your best books. I would willingly give all the rest of your library for them."

The happy possessor of a multitude of first editions, Mr. Wimbush could afford to smile indulgently.

"Is it possible," Mr. Scogan went on, "that they possess nothing more than a back and a title?" He opened the cupboard door and peeped inside, as though he hoped to find the rest of the books behin
d it. "Phooh!" he said, and shut the door again. "It smells of dust and mildew. How symbolical! One comes to the great masterpieces of the past, expecting some miraculous illumination, and one finds, on opening them, only darkness and dust and a faint smell of decay. After all, what is reading but a vice, like drink or venery or any other form of excessive self-indulgence? One reads to tickle and amuse one's mind; one reads above all, to prevent oneself thinking. Still--the 'Tales of Knockespotch'...."

He paused, and thoughtfully drummed with his fingers on the backs of the non-existent, unattainable books.

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