Who has not bought a book just for its title?
Publicists know that a poetic title will grab readers’ attention. G. Ellingworth Rich’s When Mother Lets Us Make Paper Box Furniture can hardly hold a candle to Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller or David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.
And when it comes to more esoteric subjects, there is no contest between B. P. Lathi’s Linear Systems and Signals (on electrical engineering) and Ruwen Ogien’s Human Kindness and the Smell of Warm Croissants (on social ethics). Actually, the French title is more compelling: L’influence de l’odeur des croissants chauds sur la bonté humaine – which is why, in a Ferney-Voltaire bookshop, I picked up a copy. The book is even better than its title.
Social scientists realised what everyone instinctively knows – that there is a causal relationship between someone being in a good humour and benevolent or generous actions. But more astonishing is the extent to which the factors that contribute to good humour and positive social behaviour can be trifling: it seems that exposure to good smells has a positive effect on behaving graciously.
A researcher was sent to ask people in a shopping mall if they would give change for a dollar. Those closest to a bakery from which emanated wonderful smells of bread, brioches, and croissants did so willingly. Those in places where there was no stimulating odour were far less obliging. All it takes is the great scent of a warm croissant!
This episode takes up less than a page and a half of a 320-page book that explores moral dilemmas in society. The book itself is fascinating, but it was bought on a whim – because of its unusual title, the same baited hook as the smell of warm croissants.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez), A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera), For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway), The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender), The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (Wayne Johnston) – and many more – have the kind of je ne sais quoi totally absent from the esoteric Pi to Five Million Places (of interest, perhaps, only to mathematicians and dyslexic chefs).