Ah, this is a list I've been waiting to put together for years. It's been said, and usually not kindly, that we live in the Age of the Subtitle. (Bill Morris recently had a good piece, with a good title, on the Millions: "Are Run-On Subtitles Literature's New Flop Sweat?"). Subtitles seem to be growing longer and more explanatory every day, a trend that I think began before the current regime of Search Engine Optimization but that has only been heightened by it. It's as if publishers want to cram the widest readership into the subtitle they can, by listing possible interest groups (and search terms) and claiming the biggest storyline conceivable, usually in the form of "How ... Changed the World." (The classic example of the latter is the chef d'ouevre of the master of the single-topic history, Mark Kurlansky: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, but the one that's always amused me the most was Simon Garfield's Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World.) It's become refreshing when a publisher has enough faith in the title to let it live alone, like Sebastian Junger's recent War. Perhaps if your subject really changed the world, you don't need to say it.
As others with some historical perspective have pointed out, this is nothing new, though. In the Wild West of 18th century publishing, endless and grandiose subtitles were the rule, viz. the original title page of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un‐inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.
But if the subtitle is most often a site of excess rather than elegance, there are exceptions, and I've been keeping a mental list for a while of my favorites, which pack enough wit or weirdness or narrative verve into a few words that in many of these cases I've been driven to read (or at least buy) the book based on the subtitle alone. (Like all my ephemera, this list is a work in progress, based mostly on my own shelves, and I'll be happy to add to it over time when you (whoever "you" turns out to be) or I spot good candidates.)
- Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan. The bodily and biological and the mystically religious meet in this poetic celebration of the humblest but most subtitleable (see below) of subjects. Logan's other recent subtitle (Oak: The Frame of Civilization) has a pretty good ring to it, too, but it flirts dangerously with "Changed the World" sentiments.
- Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back by Thomas Geoghegan. One of my favorite memoirs, whose wry outlook is thoroughly captured by its title and subtitle, which have the added benefit of being the best Chicago Manual of Style capitalization test case I've ever seen, including such tricky items as "Are," "On" (only capitalized at the beginning or end of a title!), "to Be," "When," "on," and the further bonus of an "It's"/"Its" demonstration.
- Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman. I absolutely bought this one for the subtitle, and the premise it promised (a lively and personal comparison between two figures I'd never put together in my head, although they make a natural and striking pair), and it lived up to my hopes.
- Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner. This one has almost too much going for it: a great subtitle, a hilarious cover (in the original UK edition), my favorite soccer team, and a brainy take on a physical game. So much that, although I bought a copy years ago, I've been afraid to actually read it and find it doesn't fulfill expectations (though I've heard from reliable sources that it does).
- Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk. Another "genius," and another confluence of elements that make this book irresistible (though again as yet unread by me): the great subtitle, which has such a funny echo in the author's last name and in the cover illustration, in which Wittgenstein looks adorably beset by the glow of the world.
- Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WTF by April Winchell. Ha! This one just makes me laugh, as does the title, as does the site they both come from.
- Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery. What is it about dirt that attracts such excellent subtitles (and, by all accounts, such good books)? The lowly (but vital) subject, I imagine, along with the Anglo-Saxon punch of the word, which mix well with an elevated, Latinate subtitle. Speaking of elevated, I can't pass by without a shout-out to Motley Crue's The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band.
- How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, for Example by Marshall Sahlins. The subtitle promises a relaxed and confident argument that wears the challenge thrown by the scare quotes in the title lightly, although from the pages I've dipped into, the book itself, a response to a critic by a major anthropologist, reads a little more caustically, like an extended New York Review of Books letter to the editor.
- Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not by Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert. A one-of-a-kind put-on from the Strangers with Candy folks.
- Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante. "Lures and Snares": it sounds like a Pavement song. Why wouldn't you want to be caught?
Is it at all surprising that a high number of these are considered "cult classics" of some kind or another? The same attention and imagination that puts a little English on an afterthought like a subtitle is also likely to create a book that will last among some discerning set.
Some runners-up: I more or less disallowed any subtitle that begins with "How" or "Why," but a pretty good one within that category is Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. The last one knocked off the list above was Robert Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire, which, though it's not quite witty, is passionate enough that it's always made me want to read it; his William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism evokes a similar intellectual drama, if not as pithily. Some of the New Journalists got across their personalities and/or ambitions in their subtitles: I prefer Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga to the better-known Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of America, and I appreciate the sentiment of Mailer's The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, but it's working a little too hard. From my grad-school shelf, Jameson's Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is an era-defining classic (despite my distaste for the smug hopefulness of "late capitalism"), and I have a lot of affection for Deleuze and Guattari's little Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, but maybe that's because it's the only one of their books I could really understand.
There are more and better to be found beyond my limited shelves, no doubt, and my subtitle radar will only be more finely tuned now that I know what it takes to make the list.