Heavy Issue, Light Name: The Search for Moby-Duck


Typically, I approach reading a book about a scary global problem with about as much enthusiasm as going to the dentist. (Necessary, but can’t we do it later?)  So a book title that actually makes me want to read about the perils of ocean pollution is a brilliant piece of naming. I’m talking about Donovan Hohn’s recently released Moby-Duck, a book which tracks the fate and environmental impact of over 28,000 plastic bathtub toys lost at sea. And demonstrates just how far a little naming playfulness can take you when publicizing a heavy issue.

It’s not just the humor that works here. The beauty of wordplay in naming, when apt on all levels (semantically and tonality-wise), is that it can telegraph so much so accurately.Without trivializing its subject, Moby-Duck instantly conjures up an epic quest on the high seas with a whimsy befitting its prey (kids’ bath toys, in this case). And thanks to its light touch, the name actually stands a chance of attracting an audience beyond the most hardcore environmentalists. You get the sense that the author won’t be preaching at you (who wants that?) so much as taking you on an interesting and entertaining journey.

(Another example of an environmental exposé with a title that took a lighter, if still serious, approach is the film An Inconvenient Truth. Here I’d suggest that the empathic wryness of the title did as much for the film’s success as its celebrity star. )

But back to Moby-Duck. I dare you to find someone who, upon hearing that book title, wouldn’t want to learn more about the book—and be inclined to think well of it. And that’s about the most you can ask of any name. Not bad for eight little letters.


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