Judging a book by its cover

Firstly, thanks to everyone who has emailed or Tweeted me their comments about the possible alternative titles for my new book – and indeed thanks to Richard Wiseman who set up a vote on his blog page, and to everyone who voted or added a useful comment. So, here is an update.

Firstly, a quick recap: After three and a bit years in the writing, my new book on the scientific achievements during the golden age of the medieval Islamic empire is almost finished. It heads off to printers next week, to be in all good bookshops on 30 September! Hurrah.

It also now has the new title as shown on the left. This might not have been everyone’s first choice title, but there was a rationale for doing it – one that I concede is sensible and actually necessary.

The original working title has been “The House of Wisdom“, with the subtitle of “The Flourishing of A Glorious Civilisation and the Golden Age of Arabic Science“. This despite another book, by Jonathan Lyons, out a few years ago on the same subject with the same title “The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation“.

Now, the marketing arm of the publishers have become rightly concerned about the likely confusion between the two books (same title, same subject, even book covers were looking similar!) and all parties have now settled on the alternative title of “Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science” – a reference to a quote about Ibn Khaldun, the Arab scholar of the 14th century and father of the fields of economics and social science. Some people tweeted me about this saying they were not so sure about the new title, that it sounded like a travel guide or government initiative etc. I guess it is all about the context. Ibn Khaldun’s full quote (which will appear on the back cover of the book) reads:

    He who finds a new path is a pathfinder, even if the trail has to be found again by others; and he who walks far ahead of his contemporaries is a leader, even though centuries pass before he is recognized as such.”
The book is part history, part science. It covers the period between the 8th and 15th centuries when the international language of science was Arabic, when on the whole Europe was in the Dark Ages before the Renaissance and scientific revolution. It fills the gap in the story of science and the remarkable scientists between the ancient Greeks and the European led modern science. Part of the blurb on the inside flap of the dust cover will read:
Few of these scientists, [who lived during this golden
age between 8th and 15th centuries], are now known in
the western world. Who has heard of Abu Rayhan
al-Biruni, a Persian polymath and genius to to rival
Leonardo da Vinci? Or the Syrian astronomer Ibn
al-Shatir, whose manuscripts would inspire
Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system?
Or al-Khwarizmi, the father of algebra and the
greatest mathematician of the medieval world? Or
the Iraqi physicist Ibn al-Haytham who practised the
modern scientific method 600 years before Bacon and
Descartes and founded the field of modern optics long
before Newton? Or even ninth-century physician
al-Razi, who carried out some of the world’s earliest
clinical trials?
So, do I like the new title? Well, actually I think it is powerful, and sounds more grownup than the original “House of Wisdom” which, as several people have pointed out sounds more like fiction than non-fiction.
Anyway, I hope you will like the book.

About Jim Al-Khalili

Professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey, author and broadcaster.
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5 Responses to Judging a book by its cover

  1. I’ve left a comment on Richard’s Blog:
    I pre-ordered the book from amazon under the title ‘House Of Wisdom’. When I did I came across the other book of the same title. This was quite confusing but, the clear difference was, I didn’t expect Jim’s book to be the cheaper of the two. You pay for quality. What I would suggest is, that Jim gets the artwork changed to a photograph of himself. That’ll help identify and make the book stand out. He could always put the other art work in a thumb nail size or, on another page.
    I’d buy his book whatever it was called because Jim is awesome. I met him recently at Cheltenham Science Festival and he was kind enough to sign a book for me and, shake hands. It was my birthday highlight.

  2. Abu Yahya says:

    Great work professor…we’re waiting for this remarkable book

  3. The new title is apt, especially in light of the quotation, which I assume will be prominent as an epigraph. The quotation really summarizes the concept of the book and the reality of how history unfolded: It took centuries for the rest of the world to catch up to the Islamic scientists. For that reason, the title is exquisite. Pathfinders is easy to pronounce, which is an asset in interviews and word-of-mouth conversations. I am looking forward to reading the book.

  4. Abu Yahya says:

    about the the title and the cover both are attractive and neutral

  5. Student Of Maths says:

    I like this title. It’s epic.

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