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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Titles in Sanskrit studies

Which titles impress you more? Do you prefer intriguing or descriptive ones (e.g., The art of thinking properly or An introduction to Nyāya)? Which ones do you remember after a long time? How much does the title influence your choice to read or not to read a book? How much does it influence your ability to recall it once you have read it?

In my case, I like intriguing titles, dislike obscure ones (e.g., Does the Barth conundrum apply to Bhartṛnātha?) and sadly tend to forget descriptive ones. Further, an appealing title makes it much easier for me to pick a book from the shelves of a library (or of a bookshop) and makes it much easier for me to remember its content.
Among my favourite authors on Mīmāṃsā, I am very much helped by several of the titles chosen by John Taber (a typical example is Much ado About Nothing, which deals with absence as an instrument of knowledge in Kumārila —the smart title makes me smile everytime I think about it and I am hence more likely to think about it). By contrast, I always have to struggle remembering the meaning of the title of his Is Indian Logic non-Monotonic? Kei Kataoka tends to have more descriptive titles (e.g., Reconstructing the Dharma-abhivyakti-vāda in the Mīmāṃsā tradition). This is fair, because the reader gets what s/he expected, but it does not help my memory and I frequently need some time to recall where did he write about a certain sentence I want to quote.

However, intriguing titles may lead to disappointment, since they are vague enough to raise different expectations in different people and cannot satisfy them all (think of Anna-Pya Sjödin's The Happening of Tradition, which is in fact a book about Vallabha, a late Naiyāyika). Further, they can be found by chance by many people (who are not directly interested in their topics), but many others (who would have been interested in their topic) might miss them, just because they do not appear while googling for key-words. Suppose X wrote a fundamental book on how to describe manuscripts and calls it The concealed source. Will codicologists find it?

Further "intriguing" titles I like: Ich und das "Ich", by Claus Oetke. Le soi et l'autre, by Isabelle Ratié, The Self's Awareness of Itself, by Alex Watson, Contrary Thinking (collected essays of Daya Krishna) edited by Nalini Bhushan, Jay L. Garfield and Daniel Raveh, Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy, by Christopher Framarin, The concealed art of the soul, by Jonardon Ganeri. And my favourite title ever: Thinking Ritually, by F.X. Clooney, which I think gives the whole book an adequate framework.

Which titles do you prefer? Which ones do you choose for your writings?


Vidya said...

Interesting, For modern works, atleast to facilitate searching on titles, I do prefer a descriptive title as it meets my expectation criteria. But then I also wonder why I don't expect the same of Pāṇini or bhaṭṭoji dīkśita. May it is a case of different preferences for a historical work vs contemporary work!

Alastair said...

It might be just an urban myth but I heard there was an article called "Fear and Loathing in Loas' Vedas", i.e. playing with the title of Hunter S. Thompson's book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas". However, if such an article was ever written, I suspect the title may have been formed before the content of the piece! This begs another question: would you ever write an article simply because you thought of a cool title?

elisa freschi said...

@Alastair, I think this is just a urban myth. And of course I would not write an article just for the title's sake!

@Vidya, thanks for making me aware of the point. Indian titles are in fact often very misleading although they might be appealing. I would have preferred Indian authors to explain better what they were about to do (this would have —e.g., a text on chandas, or on astronomy— made it easier for us to find what we are looking for while reading a list of manuscripts). Your comment makes me think also that intriguing titles might have a shorter life, since they are more difficult to retrive in archives or internet-searches. A further point in favour of descriptive ones.

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