On the Origins of the Book Blurb—And Whose to Avoid Today

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 15 2011 10:48 AM

On the Origins of the Book Blurb—And Whose to Avoid Today

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In the

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Millions

this morning, novelist Bill Morris

about the "artistic, personal and ethical minefield" of being asked to blurb afriend's book.

The essay contains a priceless bit of history: The first appearanceof the word blurb .

The phrase originates with the 1906 book Are You a Bromide ?, by humorist Gelett Burgess. On the cover, awoman identified as "Miss Belinda Blurb" cups her hand to her mouth, megaphonestyle, and announces the following:

YES, this is a "BLURB"! All OtherPublishers commit them.  Why Shouldn't We? Say! Ain't this book a 90H.P., six-cylinder Seller? ... WE consider that this man Burgess has got HenryJames locked into the coal bin, telephoning for "Information." WE expect tosell 350 copies of this great, grand book. It has gush and go to it, ithas that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty milesof dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck. No hero, noheroine, nothing like that for OURS, but when you've READ this masterpiece,you'll know what a BOOK is, and you'll sic it onto your mother-in-law, yourdentist and the pale youth who dips hot air into Little Marjorie until 4 A.M.in the front parlour. This book has 42-carat THRILLS in it. Itfairly BURBLES. Ask the man at the counter what HE thinks of it! He's seen Janice Meredith faded to a mauve magenta. He's seen BLURBSbefore, and he's dead wise. He'll say:

This Book is the Proud PurplePenultimate!!

"Dipping hot air into Little Marjorie," by the way, is areference to apopular book from 1891, not (we don't think, anyway) some sort of deviantact from the turn of the century.

In trying to figure out whether book blurbs actually makea difference to readers , Morris polls a bunch of his friends. One, a sci-fireader, notes that praise from certain authors will pique her interest, butothers actively turn her off. "UrsulaK. Le Guin is a perfect example," the woman says. "If sheliked a book, I know it's politically correct, female-empowering, pretentiouscrap."

Meanwhile, Dwight Garner, the New York Times book critic whom Timothy Noah praised in Slate last month, tweeted thefollowing yesterday:

Half the crap galleys I've seen inthe past year were blurbed by one human: A.J. Jacobs.  #timeforanintervention

What about you are there writers whose quoted praise wouldmake you put a book back on the shelf? Or writers whose recommendations youalways trust?

 

Image courtesy of the Libraryof Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.