Book spine poem: a language evolution special

Someone once told me it was harder to make a book spine poem from non-fiction titles. I hadn’t thought about this before, and I’m never conscious of it when constructing them.

But it led me to look at my earlier book spine poems and see what pattern emerged. Fiction/non-fiction ratios (in reverse chronological order) are as follows: 5:5, 7:2, 8:2, 4:4, 2:5, 6:2, 2:4, 4:4, 2:4, 2:4, 2:5, 3:2, 3:4, 4:3, 2:1, 0:4, 1:4, 0:3, 2:2, 4:2, 1:2, 4:4, 7:9.

That’s 75 fiction, 81 non-fiction. I’m surprised there are more non-fiction, and that the totals ended up so close. Two bookmashes are exclusively non-fiction, but none contain only fiction. (New challenge!)

I don’t usually set out with a theme in mind, but this time I wanted to make one about language/linguistics, which was always going to skew heavily towards non-fiction: 2:7. Non-fiction surges ahead – for now.

[click to enlarge]

stan carey - book spine poem - bookmash - evolution the difference engine

Evolution: the difference engine

Words words words ad infinitum –
The power of Babel,
The languages of the world.
Human speech: the articulate mammal enigma,
Evolution: the difference engine.


Thanks to the authors: Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, Nicholas Ostler, John McWhorter, Kenneth Katzner, Richard Paget, Jean Aitchison, Robert Harris, Carl Zimmer, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; and to artist Nina Katchadourian.

More in the bookmash archive.


20 Responses to Book spine poem: a language evolution special

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    Good one Stan BUT leaning heavily towards the masculine, yeah?


  2. alexmccrae1546 says:


    At the risk of boring folks out there to distraction… curiously, the 15 bookmashes I’ve thus far posted on your site over many moons now, have consisted of 35 fiction ‘spine titles’ (including poetry anthologies), and 54 non-fiction publications.

    I think this 54-non-fiction/ 35-fiction ratio, (clearly slanted heavily toward the non-fiction realm), fairly accurately reflect my admitted reading bias for non-fiction works.

    Interestingly, in only three of my 15 ‘mashes’ were there equal numbers of fiction and non-fiction titles (2/2, 3/3/ 3/3), whilst non-fiction tomes dominated in 9 of the remaining 12 individual ‘stacks’.

    The most books, total, in any one ‘mash’ was 7, and this was the case in only 2 offerings. The least, was one stack of just 4 titles. I’ve yet to create a ‘mash poem’ consisting solely of one book genre, i.e., all fiction, or all non-fiction.

    As you suggested… “New challenge”, indeed.

    I feel a new ‘mash’ brewing*. HA!

    *No single-malt whiskey distilling implications there.

  3. My bookmashes consist mostly (60%) of non-fiction titles, so if anything, I’m inclined to assume non-fiction is more suited to the task.

    But what it really comes down to, I believe, is grammar. Most book titles — both fiction and non-fiction — are noun phrases, but it’s the exceptions to this rule that are particularly useful for the task. The verb phrase titles, the prepositional phrase titles, and so on. My hunch is that non-noun-phrase titles are more common in non-fiction, and that bookmashes are more likely to contain non-fiction for precisely that reason.

    Actually, when I created my “Stanmashes”, my strategy was to write a list of all the titles you’d used, paste them into Word, and arrange them into grammatical groups: separate lists of noun phrase titles, prepositional phrase titles, etc. Then I printed the document and drew links between titles that I thought went well together.

    Of course, your bookmash above _does_ consist entirely of noun phrase titles, but the point stands in general.

  4. Stan says:

    Alex: Thanks for reporting your own stats on this. Interesting that non-fiction again dominates but not emphatically. If your brew is distilled, be sure to send the result!

    Adrian: That’s true. The frequency of noun phrases (particularly those beginning with The) is often a hindrance when putting bookmashes together, at least if you want to avoid being very repetitive. Without a good verb phrase or prepositional phrase I find myself relying more on ellipsis or punctuation to concoct something satisfactory. I was happier than usual with this one because it had a good mix of syntax, and the repeating “The”s worked in its favour.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Thanks for your thoughtful observations on the “Stanmash” phenomenon, and how noun-phrases seem to play an integral, and dominant part in the composing of most book titles… be they fiction, or non-fiction.

    I also find (as you put it) “useful to the task” in this fun and challenging ‘mashing’ enterprise, books w/ only one-word titles; used as either linkages of related thoughts, or merely descriptive, and fitting connectors in moving along the poetic ‘stream’… or theme.(I don’t know if I made myself completely clear there, but hopefully you get my drift.)

    Yet, in doing a quick perusal of my many book shelves and sundry floor-stacked book-towers, immediately at hand, I could only mange a dozen book titles that fit this special category.

    Here’s what I managed to come up with:

    “Disgrace” by South African writer J. M. Coetzee
    “Surfacing” by Canadian scribe Margaret Atwood*
    “Solitude” by Anthony Storr
    “Wordstruck” by noted news journalist Robert MacNeil
    “Borderliners” by Danish national literary treasure Peter Høeg
    “Blink” and “Outliers” by author Malcom Gladwell
    “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller**
    “Cancer Ward” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
    “Oranges” by frequent ‘New Yorker’ contributor John McPhee
    “Passages” by Gail Sheehy
    “Touching” by Ashley Montagu

    Oh Stan, I’m still ‘abrewing’, but will come up w/ a ‘strange brew’ before the day is done, and send it along, forthwith.

    *I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’ve gotten a lot of mileage (verbiage?) out of Atwood’s early novel, “Surfacing”, perhaps because the word has such an evocative, active, almost anticipatory air about it. (I think I’ve used it in three of my 15 ‘mashes’, to date.)

    **OK… you knee-jerk peevers out there. “Cancer Ward” is technically TWO words, but I have to get cut some slack for at least trying, no? HA!

    • Alex, the stanmashes are these (images taken from Stan’s bookmashes, recycled into new ones via cut-and-paste). I think you may have misunderstood. Perhaps I should try the same exercise with yours…

      I don’t have many one-word titles either, but using them isn’t really my style in any case. I wonder if you would find any use for the titles Crocodile, Microworlds, Timeframe, Conundrum, Mort and/or Thud.

    • Alex, here’s my attempt to recycle some of your previous bookmashes. I hope you like it.

      • alexmccrae1546 says:


        First off, indeed, I did misunderstand your self-coined (I’m assuming) term “Stanmashes”, thinking you were referencing any, or all ‘bookmash poems’ that have appeared on Stan’s online site over the years. Thanks for the clarification, there. Now understood.

        I’m frankly flattered that you’d take the time, and thoughtfulness to ‘rehash’, or more precisely, ‘remash’, some of my previously posted ‘mashes’, and come up w/ new, reconfigured spine poetry of your own.

        Bye-the-bye, the one you’ve posted in the link above is very cool, and, for me, has a nice thematic coherence and narrative flow. Well done.

        (Happen to love that line, “Radiance from the waters”. The subtitle of this particular book reads, “Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art”. The Mende being a very proud, handsome, ancient African people from Sierra Leone, whose women wear there hair in distinctive styles, befitting, and reflecting their status and age within the “Sande Society”—a kind of women-only, intimate, and supportive tribal fraternity.)

        Neat idea to take the bookmash exercise to yet another level of enjoyment, and discovery. Wish more of our regulars (or newcomers) would participate. After all, there are tons of avid readers in that group. Oh well.

        Even though it would be a bit of a cheat, due to the fact that I don’t have any of those one-word-titled books in my personal library that you’ve enumerated, earlier, I just might give-it-a-go, and attempt to incorporate some of these titles into new mash-poems, combined w/ book titles, at hand, here in my humble, yet book-friendly abode. We shall see.

  6. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Here, as promised, is my latest ‘strange brew’ ‘mash’, w/ a darkest African thread; yet w/ an opening, distinctly Aboriginal Australian touch. Chose to include the title of the definitive political tract of defiant ’60s Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, and one of many engaging nature-themed books by the intrepid Sir David Attenborough.

    I managed to bring together a stack of ALL non-fiction book titles, here, … a personal ‘Stanmash’ first for me.


    —Songlines and Dreamings”—-

    Songlines and dreamings
    Dark path
    Soul on ice
    The trials of
    King Leopold’s ghost
    The last
    Of the Nuba


    Author credits in order of stacking, from top-to-bottom: Patrick Corbally Stourton, William H. Shannon, Eldridge Cleaver, Sir David Attenborough, Adam Hochschild, and Leni Riefenstahl.

    Stan, will send along an e-mailed photo of my ‘mash’ stack, shortly.

    Thanks again for your periodically continuing the bookmash challenge.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:


      Sorry Adrian. I guess the “Stanmash” thing is going to take a bit of time to completely sink in to this thick noggin of mine.

      Perhaps a senior moment going on in the second paragraph, above. Clearly my first-ever all-non-fiction offering is NOT a “Stanmash”, but merely a regular ‘bookmash poem, ’tis all.

      No rehashed, remashed Stan titles there.

  7. Stan says:

    Adrian: Your “Alexmash” is really well composed.

    Alex: Thanks, as always, for taking part. Here’s your latest bookmash:

  8. Thanks, Alex and Stan, for the kind comments on my ‘Alexmash’. I tried out several variations — some shorter, some longer — before settling on its final form. It bothers me a little that it turned out so similar to my second ‘Stanmash’, but viewed in isolation I am happy with it.

    (Alex, you are, of course, correct that I coined ‘stanmash’, though originally only as a filename. I’d say it became a descriptive term only when Stan endorsed it by using it in a link.)

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:


    With thoughts of scary hobgoblins, zombies, jack ‘o lanterns, vampires, shape-shifters, and Lady Gaga (Doh!) in the ether, Halloween night just mere days away, and our bookmash enterprise well afoot, I couldn’t help but flash back to my misspent youth, and that catchy, but oh-so-corny ’60s pop-tune, “The Monster Mash”…. it was “a graveyard smash”, man… and “caught on in a flash”… don’t you know?

    That seeming odd tangential observation was merely a cheap set up for my thanking you, Adrian, for coining up w/ the term “Alexmash”. Again I’m flattered, and going forward will try my darndest to live up to the moniker.

    Hmm.. I guess honing my own “Alexmashes” would be a bit creepy, or viewed as somewhat self-serving… but then again, why not?

    Thing is, I don’t have the Photoshop, or Power Point apps to do a cut-and-paste jobby, as you have so deftly put to good use w/ both Stan and my visuals, i.e., book spines.(Photoshop… I’m guessing?)

    I feel the accompanying photo of the actual individual stack of books does add yet another aesthetic element to the whole bookmash experience, supporting the poetic content. I, for one, as an artist, really enjoy this aspect of ‘mash’ creation, and get a kick out of adding my little, hopefully, thematically related little objet d’art as the crowning touch to the final photo.

    Wishing you a ‘horrific’ Halloween… and I mean that in only a good way. HA!


    • Keeping this brief:

      – At this point it’s not a coinage so much as a productive suffix.
      – Doing your own alexmash would indeed be strange: why resort to cut-and-paste images when you have access to the original books?
      – You don’t need Photoshop or any kind of fancy graphics software. Very simple software will suffice; all you need is confidence in using it.

      • alexmccrae1546 says:


        Touché!… Strange, indeed.

        What was I thinkin’. Obviously not too clearly.

        As you’ve indicated, ALL the book titles I’ve used, thus far, are available to me as part of my personal archive; so no necessity in digitally cut-and-pasting when I have the ‘Real McCoys’… or more aptly, the Real McCraes, and a camera, at hand.

        Re/ your observation about how “confidence” in using simple software for rudimentary graphics plays into optimal results, I would concur. Confidence (and diligent trial-and-error practice) go a long way in being accomplished in any endeavor where various specific skill-sets are required.

        But I’ll opt to leave it up to you, Stan and any other game ‘bookmashers’ out there, to come up w/ new ‘Alexmashes’, if so inclined. (Though perhaps, as bluesman B.B. King says, “The
        thrill is gone.”?)

        At any rate, I have a whole slew of great book titles, yet to have entered the online bookmash arena, patiently waiting their turn to be called into literary service. There time will come.

  10. […] of course, special thanks to Stan Carey who first gave me the […]

  11. […] non-fiction – I tend to notice the ratio only after putting them together. See my previous one on language evolution for stats on fiction vs. […]

  12. […] a strong bias towards non-fiction here, with Ali Smith’s the only novel. In 2013 I found a close ratio of fiction to non-fiction in my bookmashes, but I’ll have to review the figures, maybe when I’ve done 40 or 50 (we’re […]

  13. […] Unlocking the Language, The Name of the World, Evolution: The Difference Engine, Forest of Symbols, Ambient Gestures […]

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