To judge or not to judge a book by its cover?

Jeremy Koay reports on one aspect of his recently completed PhD study.

Self-improvement books are a widely read popular non-fiction genre. This advice-giving genre often promotes the ideology that with hard work and perseverance individuals can change or improve their lives. While it is often said that one should not judge a book by its cover, my study shows that this statement is worth reconsideration.

Self-improvement book titles present the idea that readers’ lives need improvement and that readers need to take charge of this process. For example, your life is the most common collocation in the titles, and the most common verb that governs your life is change (e.g., Change Your Question – Change Your Life). Other verbs include take control of, transform and improving. These verbs promote the idea that individuals should not be satisfied with the status quo, and that they should actively explore ways to better their lives.

To present authors’ recommendations as achievable, my research shows that the process of self-improvement is often presented as involving simple steps (e.g., One Word that will Change Your Life). Book titles also tell us that improving one’s life, as these books advocate, starts with changing how an individual thinks (e.g., Change Your Thinking – Change Your Life).

Grammatical structure of book titles can tell us about the purpose of self-improvement books and how improvement is perceived in this genre. Besides noun phrases, imperative clauses (e.g., Never Give up!) and ing-clause (e.g., Becoming a Person of Influence) are common patterns in the titles. These grammatical structures indicate that self-improvement books are an instructional genre and they view improvement as an ongoing process, respectively.

So, self-improvement book titles reflect the ideology that the genre advocates. They show us that the purpose of these books is to help readers to improve their lives continuously by changing how they think. After all, book titles can be quite informative. So, to judge or not to judge a book by its cover?

John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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