Jerry Brotton

What’s in a Title?

Having staggered out of an Oxford hospital at some ungodly hour in November 2009, after watching my wife give birth to our son, I went in search of coffee and a newspaper. Settling down to read about what was happening in the ‘real world’, I tried to focus on an article describing a collaboration between the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects. Neil MacGregor’s wonderful 100-part radio series and subsequent Penguin book of the same name would offer a global history of the world by drawing on a selection of the museum’s objects chosen from over two million years of human civilisation. I might have applauded such a wonderful initiative more enthusiastically if it wasn’t for the fact that two years earlier I had signed up to write a book with the same publisher called A History of the World in 12 Maps (out in September). There is, of course, no copyright on titles, nor was this one identical. After a soothing talk from my editor, I found myself agreeing with the design critic Stephen Bayley, who described discovering that someone had used the same title as him as ‘like being mugged by your granny, disturbing but harmless’. Nevertheless, as subsequent writers continue to use variations on the ‘History of the World’ formula, from Chris McNab’s A History of the World in 100 Weapons to James Fox’s forthcoming television series A History of Art in Three Colours, it strikes me that there is something more going on here than pure coincidence.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'Her favourite design included a body in the shape of a horse, with a steam engine inside ... The passenger would t… ,
    • Sign up to our email newsletter below! Get free articles, highlights from the archive, and chances to win theatre… ,
    • RT : Founded in 1979, is a trusted independent source for reviews of new books across a variety of genres. A… ,
    • RT : Here we are - "Shelf Indulgence" by Ed Potten, a wonderful read, well worth your time: @Lit_Review,
    • 'Like going to a party hoping to get away as quickly as politeness allowed and at 4am finding myself still engrosse… ,
    • 'Neville never shed his sense of being the junior, and perhaps least-deserving Chamberlain.' From the archive, Mic… ,
    • 'The erecting and immediate destruction of a series of straw men rather detracts from what is for the most part an… ,