British author David Mitchell's latest extraordinary novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, has, shockingly, not made the shortlist of six finalists for the Man Booker Prize, one of Britain's most presigious literary awards.

 

For the juicy lit chat that Brits are famous for, check out the Guardian story about the surprise exclusion here; for a cover gallery of the six titles that did make the list, look here; for the winner, check back on October 12, 2010.

 

For a discussion of the structure that intrigued me about his previous titles, which include Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, read on here.

 

I can't address all the many marvels of Mitchell's prose in this short blog, but I must mention his artful treatment of a translator's dilemma (the book is ostensibly a historical fiction about a European in Japan around 1800) and his long descriptions, tour de forces of detail and precision.

 

Description can be tough for any writer. Often, student, beginning, or unskilled writers seem especially prone to extended strings of adjectives. Their descriptive prose can feature trains of adjectives piling up into a sort of wreck of verbiage before a noun. While adjective constructions certainly have their place, it's interesting to look at how other words function descriptively in English.

 

Look carefully at Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. Each of those five words can be a noun: atlas, black, cloud, green, swan; two of them are familiar as straight-up adjectives—black, green—and one functions as an adjective in the title, though we may not think of it that way: cloud.

 

In Cloud Atlas, "cloud" is a noun, yet it describes what kind of atlas is being discussed: an atlas of clouds. That's not at all uncommon in English: think of such common locutions as baseball cap, ice water, river otter—a list can go on and on. That's because in English attributive nouns—nouns that function as modifiers, or that give additional information about other nouns—are very common. From football games to fashion models, words switch between noun and adjective uses all the time and no one bats an eyelash. 

 

In Black Swan Green, there is a sort of seesaw effect, with the color words "black" and "green" teetering around "swan" in the middle. Here "green" is actually a noun, and "black swan" modifies it, tell us which green the author is writing about, but at first glance, there can be a bit of dislocation in the reader's mind—a welcome bit of play with our usual way of categorizing words and what they do.

 

Of course, the word play of Mitchell's titles, intriguing as they are, from Number9Dream to Ghostwritten, is a minor delight compared to sheer glee of reading the writing inside. But I find his titles are quiet and quite alluring signposts directing me to the riches within, and I very much hope they lure in more than a few new readers, regardless of the vagaries of the Man Booker Prize judges.

 

What author generates titles you find intriguing? Let us know your favorites!

 

 

 

Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.

 

 

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