Wednesday, October 13, 2010

BDFIJLRTU, or, One-Letter Book Titles

My unsolicited email (not quite "spam" I suppose since I did buy something from the company once) was uncannily on-point today. The web site ABE books sent me a link to this page of theirs celebrating one-letter book titles. Their occasion for this is that one of the works just shortlisted for the Booker prize is C by Tom McCarthy. So they list twenty others, plus some near-misses.

As it happens, I had some time ago stumbled upon John Burkardt's list of one-letter book titles, and quite enjoyed it -- I even suggested a few new ones, and Mr. Burkardt was kind enough to mention my name. I wonder if ABE's spam searchbots saw that? Or is it just coincidence? (I actually suspect the latter).

Not surprisingly, the 21-title list of ABE books and the 23-title list of John Burkardt are pretty similar. By my count, ABE caught only one book that Burkardt missed (the recent C) while Burkardt found three that ABE didn't (two earlier C's, plus Leacock's Q).

Merging these, I present for posterity (or spambots) the following list of 24 26 one-letter titles:
  • a, Andy Warhol
  • C, Maurice Baring
  • "C", Anthony Cave Brown
  • C, Tom McCarthy
  • c, Thomas Sowell
  • E, Matt Beaumont
  • F: Hu Feng's Prison Years,  Mei Zhi
  • F, Daniel Kehlmann
  • G, John Berger
  • H, Elizabeth Shepard
  • H., Lin Haire-Sargeant
  • J, Howard Jacobson
  • K, Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • K., Ronald Hayman
  • M, John Sack
  • N, Louis Edwards
  • O, Omari Grandberry
  • P, Andrew Lewis Conn
  • Q, Luther Blissett
  • Q, Stephen Leacock
  • S, Harry Mathews et. al.*
  • S., John Updike
  • V, Thomas Pynchon
  • W, or the Memory of Childhood, Georges Perec
  • X, Sue Coe
  • Y: the Last Man, Brian Vaughn et al.
  • Z, Vassily Vassilikos
Subtitles are included only for the Perec, the Zhi and the Vaughn, although more have them (often "a novel" if nothing else), but in each case the one-letter title is clear, at least to my mind (and, it seems, to others').

I'm not sure about that Sowell title, however... a quick google doesn't turn it up. Does anyone have a reference for that?

Where their pages differ, not surprisingly, is the category that Burkardt calls "Close but no cigar" and that ABE calls "Books that almost made the cut". There I definitely prefer Burkardt, where nearly all his near-miss books catch the spirit of the list, whereas ABE just lists a bunch of books with short words as titles. The two-book overlap between the near-miss lists are definitely the most relevant of the bunch, however:
  • N or M?, Agatha Christie
  • U and I, Nicholson Baker
-- but again, I think that Burkardt's near-miss list is mostly relevant -- unlike all the other entries on ABE's near-miss list-- so, if you're silly and obsessive enough to have enjoyed this list thus far, you should click on over for the rest of his titles. (On the other hand, you might say that of course I would consider his list better since I suggested several of the titles on it.)

In fact, one item that Burkardt lists in the "near miss" category is actually one I would argue belongs on the list proper is
  • ∈ by Jacques Roubaud
That's not an "E" however, although some references list the title that way: instead, it's "the mathematical symbol used to indicate that an object belongs to a set" (in Burkardt's phrasing) or -- as it's called in French, "Signe D'Appartenance" (that, in parentheses, is how it's listed sometimes in search engines). Still, even though not an E, it's a one-character title, so personally I'd count it, making 25 such titles in all.

Despite there being 25 such titles, however, overlap in usage (no less than four "C" books, assuming the Sowell is legit) means that a fair number of letters are still up for grabs. Writers of the world, take note! The following books remain to be written:
  • B
  • D
  • I
  • L
  • R
  • T
  • U
Abe books does note that "authors and publishers would be wise to move away from this trend as the influence of the Internet continues to affect book-buying. Single letter titles are not particularly friendly to Internet search engines that thrive more detailed data than just A or B." So perhaps those nine will remain un-penned. (Although if we're discounting subtitles, then that's always an option for making a title googleable.) I hope not, though. I'd like to complete my set.

(The other obvious extension here, I suppose, is to numbers. But so far as I can tell, there aren't any books titled 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9. It seems if books wish to be a single-digit number, they spell it out (e.g. One). There are some films -- the one's I've seen in a brief search are 1, 3, 4, 8 and 9 (again, discounting films like Seven that spell it out). And album titles positively abound in single-digit numbers: there are multiple albums called by each of those eight titles, and for some there are a great many indeed. But it looks like these are, literarily, uncharted territory.)

Unrelated postscript: anyone who's read this far will probably also like John Burkardt's marvelously idiosyncratic list of Hapax Leomenon. (What would the plural be of that anyway?) And probably also his list of multiple homonyms (i.e. homonyms with three or more words in the set not just two).

Update, Years Later: Added two new titles, F and J, and removed those letters from the list of ones yet to be written.  Now, at the end of 2014, the title of this post should be BDILRTU.  But I'll leave it as is.

Update, More Years Later: I won't be updating this post any more, because others have it covered.  See, for instance:
One-letter titles at TV Tropes
Single-letter titles at goodreads
One-letter movie titles at IMDb
And one at the blog The Modern Novel

* This is the English translation of a book written partly in English and partly in French, by seven authors, with the French title Semaines de Suzanne.


Tymmi said...

Perhaps of some related interest, If you'll allow some shameless self promotion:
my own new comic, !

Stephen said...

Hey, on-topic self-promotion is always welcome here. It looks neat, although I think a bit pricey for me. Congrats on winning the Xeric grant though!

Tymmi said...

Thank you.
It was a bit of a pricey project to print, even with the Xeric. It's the oddball format. Comparing it to to similar projects - like Buenaventura's Elvis Road, for example - I think it's a pretty fair price.