Saturday, 28 March 2009 18:35
By SARAH LYALL The New York Times
LONDON — To those outside dairy (or container) circles, a book called “The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais” tends to provoke more questions than it resolves. Such as: Why fromage frais? And: “60-Milligram” — is that a misprint?
But the book, geared to that slender segment of the population that both cares about dairy product cartons and is happy to spend hundreds of dollars to learn more about them, has just won an actual literary award. This is the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year, sponsored by The Bookseller magazine.
It is hardly the Nobel Prize in Literature. But following well-established awards practice, Philip Stone, the magazine’s charts editor and “awards administrator,” released a congratulatory statement on Thursday. Sadly, it was not a ringing endorsement of the winner.
“What does the future hold for these items?” Mr. Stone asked, speaking of fromage-frais cartons. “Well, given that fromage frais normally comes in 60-gram containers, one would assume that the world outlook for 0.06-gram containers of fromage frais is pretty bleak. But I’m not willing to pay £795 to find out.” (That’s about $1,139.)
The work, actually a statistical report rather than a proper book, was written by Philip M. Parker, a professor of marketing at the French campus of Insead, the international business school. He uses econometric models to publish niche reports in the thousands. “This may turn out to be the highest award that report will ever win,” he said in an e-mail message.
The work beat stiff competition from the four actual books on the shortlist: “Curbside Consultation of the Colon,” “The Large Sieve and Its Applications,” “Strip and Knit With Style” and “Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring.”
Reached by telephone as he prepared to board a bus in New York, Mark Hordyszynski, the author of the losing “Strip and Knit With Style,” said that the “strip” in the title means “cutting fabrics into strips.”
“Apparently in England, ‘strip’ basically has one meaning, and that means to get undressed,” he said. “So I understand their point.”
In an e-mail message, Dr. Brooks D. Cash, who lost for “Curbside Consultation of the Colon,” part of a medical series, said that he was “honored to be in such august company.” Dr. Cash, chief of gastroenterology at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., added, “I think being beaten by someone with that title is really cheesy.”
The Diagram Prize began in 1978 as a way for Bruce Robertson, co-founder of the Diagram Group, an information and graphics company based in London, to combat his ennui at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That was a bumper year for odd titles — nominees included “100 Years of British Retail Catering” and “50 New Poodle Grooming Styles” — but the runaway winner was “Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Nude Mice.”
Publishers are not allowed to nominate their own books, so as to prevent them from giving books willfully odd names. That is pretty much the only rule. Anyone can nominate a title, and the public is invited to vote online at thebookseller.com. The prize’s administrators try not to read the books, Mr. Stone said, because doing so might “cloud our judgment.”
In fact, no one may have read Dr. Parker’s work. His reports are printed on demand, and he said he is not sure about sales because he tracks them by genre rather than by title.
Past winners include “Versailles: The View From Sweden,” “Weeds in a Changing World” and “Reusing Old Graves.”
Books that have made the shortlist but inexplicably failed to win include “A Pictorial Book of Tongue Coatings,” “Sex After Death,” “Waterproofing Your Child” and “Cheese Problems Solved” — which, its publisher says, provides “responses to more than 200 of the most commonly asked questions about cheese,” with special emphasis on mozzarella, blue cheese and cheddar.
Authors don’t lobby for the award; it is thrust upon them, sometimes without their even knowing they were contenders.
“It came out of the blue,” said Gary Leon Hill, who won in 2005 with “People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It.” He added, “I was delighted by it because I’m happy to have anybody draw attention to the book.”
Last year The Bookseller held a competition for the Diagram of Diagrams, a homage of sorts to the Booker of Bookers, awarded to the best Booker Prize-winning book of all time. (Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” won that one.) In the case of the Diagram, the uber-prize went to “Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers.”
This caused some controversy. Yes, that is an odd title, but surely not odder than “How to Avoid Huge Ships,” which won the 1992 prize.
“How to Avoid Huge Ships,” in which John W. Trimmer, an old sea captain, offers shipping-lane safety tips to pleasure-boat sailors, has a select but fervent following, and on Friday evening was ranked No. 1,396,102 on Amazon.com.
One critic said on Amazon that he wished the book had included more tips on differentiating between huge and less huge ships, so readers could be sure “what size of ship they were avoiding.”
But another raved: “I never leave the house without this indispensable little book. It has literally saved my life many times while walking down Peckham High Street and Ealing Broadway.”