Today is the birthday of American author and humorist Frank Gelett Burgess (1866-1951). Some might argue that today should be “Purple Cow Day” because Burgess is best known for the four-line nonsense poem, “The Purple Cow”:
never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one,
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!*
Although “The Purple Cow” is one of the most quoted American poems of the twentieth-century, Burgess is also known for another momentous literary achievement: the coining of the word “blurb,” the short promotional descriptions or reviews by which consumers judge a book by its cover.
The story of the blurb begins in 1906. Burgess was promoting his latest book Are You a Bromide? at a trade association dinner. To capture the attention of potential buyers, he created a dust jacket with the book’s title and a brief description. To make the book more eye-catching, he added a picture of fictitious young woman he called Miss Belinda Blurb. The name stuck as a way of describing the promotional text that publishers place on book jackets. Today, the term is also used to refer to the written endorsements by fellow writers or celebrities that are found typically on a book’s back cover.
One could argue that American poet Walt Whitman should be given some credit for inventing the concept of the blurb — though not the word itself. After Whitman published the first edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855, he received a letter of praise from the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely of fortifying and encouraging.
Seeing an opportunity to use Emerson’s words for promotional purposes, Whitman had them stamped in gold leaf on the spine of his second edition.
Today blurbs have expanded beyond books. They’re written for movies, for websites, and just about any product you can imagine.
Today’s Challenge: Judging a Book by Its Blurb
What is a book, movie, or other product that you are enthusiastic enough about to endorse with words of praise? Brainstorm some titles or products you really love. Then, select one and write a blurb. Image that your words of praise will be placed on the actual item and that your words will determine whether or not consumers buy the item. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: . . . consumers aren’t stupid, and they’ve grown increasingly cynical about the dubious art of the blurb. After you’ve been tricked into paying for a couple of really bad movies because of one, you realize the difference between real praise and a plain old con job. Every good blurb of bad work numbs the consumer’s confidence and trust. -Stephen King (3)
*A purple cow is the mascot of Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
1-Dwyer, Colin. Forget the Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story on Blurbs? NPR 27 Sept. 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/09/27/429723002/forget-the-book-have-you-read-this-irresistible-story-on-blurbs.
2-Letters Of Note. I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career. 6 Dec. 2010. http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/12/i-greet-you-at-beginning-of-great.html.
3-King, Stephen. Stephen King on the “Art” of the Blurb. Entertainment. 20 Mar. 2008. http://www.ew.com/article/2008/03/20/stephen-king-art-blurb/2.