What Books Titled What X Can Teach Us About Y Can Teach Us About Publishing

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 5 2012 3:59 PM

What Books Titled What X Can Teach Us About Y Can Teach Us About Publishing


Judging from the book catalogs stacked on my desk, 2012 is shaping up to be a banner year in things teaching us things about other things. January will see the publication of Shimon Edelman’s The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life, following closely on the heels of Andreas Kluth’s Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure. In the spring, we’ll get to read Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology and Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing (not to be confused with 2005’s Raising the Peaceable Kingdom: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Social Origins of Tolerance and Friendship).

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

By Slate’s count, at least 18 books following the “what X can teach us about Y” (henceforth WXCTUAY) formula were published in 2011 or are slated for publication in 2012. (As you may have noticed, we have a thing for popular book-title formulas.) Why the sudden explosion of edification from unexpected sources?


The WXCTUAY trend is part of a larger trend of subtitles raging out of control. Publishers want a title to be pithy and attractive, so it can’t be too lengthy or significant: Nobody’s going to stop and check out a book with a title longer than five or six words, and two or three are even better. A subtitle is a publisher’s chance to tell you specifically what a book is about, to sell you on it, and to pack in as many buzzwords as possible.

Which is what makes WXCTUAY such a brilliant recipe: It reassures readers that they’ll learn something new from the book, and it can contain as many fashionable words as you want. Consider a title on the vanguard of the trend, 1997’s Horse Sense and the Human Heart: What Horses Can Teach Us About Trust, Bonding, Creativity and Spirituality. By buying this book, I can learn about trust, bonding, creativity, and spirituality? I love all of those things! What a deal!

What’s more, the WXCTUAY principle implies mysterious, fascinating connections among diverse, random aspects of the universe—which seems to be the holy grail of popular nonfiction publishing in a post-Malcolm Gladwell, post-Freakonomics era. Just how can masked vigilantes and miraculous mutants educate us in the ways of being human? And in what ways can the airline industry instruct us about leadership? I have no idea, but I admit I’m a little intrigued—and that’s the point.

But are WXCTUAY subtitles really meaningful? Slate decided to put the concept to the test by mixing up the component parts of fourteen of our favorite WXCTUAY titles. Can you reassemble the titles correctly?  Or can you come up with even better titles by reassembling them incorrectly? I, for one, wouldn’t easily pass by a book called Hannibal and Me: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the Social Origins of Tolerance and Friendship.

What X Can Teach Us About Y

Reorder the boxes in each column below to correctly match up each book title, X part, and Y part in each row. Move the boxes like this:

When you click “Show results,” correct matches will appear in green, while incorrect matches will remain white.

    Book Title
  • Eco-Republic
  • Beeconomy
  • Rescue Me!
  • How Fantasy Sports Explains the World
  • Walking with Dog
  • Conversations with Power
  • Unfinished Business
  • Medici Effect
  • From Egg to Adult
  • Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples
  • What's Science Ever Done For Us?
  • In the Yikes! Zone
  • Thank You for Arguing
  • Blessings from a Thousand Generations
    What (X)
  • The Ancients
  • Women and Bees
  • Superheroes
  • Pujols and Peyton
  • Man's Best Friend
  • Great Presidents and Prime Ministers
  • The Dead
  • Elephants and Epidemics
  • Worms, Flies, and Other Creatures
  • The Opt-Out Phenomenon
  • The Simpsons
  • Skiing
  • Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson
  • Our Biblical Ancestors
    Can Teach Us About (Y)
  • Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living
  • Local Trade and the Global Market
  • The Power of Faith
  • Wookiees and Wall Street
  • God
  • Leadership
  • Life
  • Innovation
  • The Switches That Control Human Development
  • Work and Family
  • Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe
  • Surrender and Trust
  • The Art of Persuasion
  • Healing Our Families Today

Ready to see how well you did?
Shuffle (Warning: Shuffling will undo any correct matches you've already made.)


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