I finally have some good news to share. We† found the right paper and the printer that knows what to do with it, and have all the verbal agreements we need. Things can go haywire still, but this is the current plan:
I’ll tell you the complex story of the paper search later, but what’s exciting about this moment is also that I finally can start sharing some aspects of the book, because I no longer worry about them changing.
So let’s start with revealing the chapter list!
I’ve always had a thing for titles. A perfect title excites and lodges itself in your brain long before you see the thing it’s describing, and then doesn’t let go after.
Some of the great titles I adore, off the top of my head: Glengarry Glen Ross (the melody of that phrase + the mystery of its meaning + the eventual mundanity of it all). The Soul of a New Machine, a seminal computer history book from 1981 (I mean…). Dave Not Coming Back, a recent documentary.
But what I really get excited about happens one level deeper.
For TV shows, it’s not the show title, but the episode titles. Back in the day, I’ve spent hours obsessing about the titles of installments of favourite shows like ER or The West Wing. “Fevers of Unknown Origin.” “Constituency of One.” “Choosing Joi.” Those – earnest, maybe a little pretentious, definitely gimmick-free – stayed with me long after the respective title card left the screen.
For movies, since I don’t often look at DVD menus, the tiles can be found in movie soundtracks, which have to label their tracks and often do so based on events from the movie. I sometimes buy and listen to a movie score before seeing its matching film – although you have to be careful – and once in a while I even come up with fictional soundtrack listings for books I’d like to turn into movies.
(What. You don’t do that…?)
And for books, it’s chapter titles I find most rewarding. As you probably already know from my newsletter titles, I aim for a specific style: strange, maybe a bit more thoughtful than it seems, just the right amount of mysterious. I love non-fiction books with fiction-book-like chapter titles. I adore beautiful turns of phrases. And I admire titles that perhaps won’t mean much until you actually read a chapter – and even then, you might have to work to connect with what you’ve just read.
Tables of contents like these are a pleasure to check out before reading. I love opening a new book from the back (in Poland and parts of Europe, books have their tables of contents at the end, and so will mine) and then just scanning the chapter titles, the strange universe of the book laid out like an itinerary – one I barely comprehend, but one I am excited to soon follow. This feels so much better to me than a straightforward chapter list, followed by an opening that spoils, one paragraph per one chapter, in great detail, what the book is going to be about.
My book’s title has been something of an accident. I needed something quickly for a 5-minute Ignite talk I was planning. My brain rushed to either Shift Happens or Holy Shift because obviously. I chose the former, assuming something else will eventually take its place.
I hated it then, deeming it vulgar and simplistic. But everyone else loved it, and in time it occurred to me it’s actually secretly a much better title than I gave it credit for. It hinted at the design process of keyboards not existing at all, things just happening haphazardly – and Shift being the first new key to appear, in the 1870s still, a harbinger of a confused future.
This is not easy to see, but this is Succession’s Kendall Roy wearing a “Shift Happens” t-shirt. As I learned from a Google alert set for this name, this phrase is very popular in all sorts of business workshops etc.
This was the book title. But chapter titles? No happy accidents there. I really, really labored over those.
One of the big early milestones for the book was laying out its entire structure on the wall, as sticky notes, one row for each chapter. Seeing the book like that, before I wrote a single word, felt overwhelming. But what helped me cope was imagining the cool titles that would represent each of these rows.
Some titles were obvious from the beginning. But most others happened slowly, each chapter collecting many contenders.
Sometimes, when I finally found or chose the right title, I got so excited I texted my friends. Then, immediately after that, I would change my mind.
But now I’m finally here, and I can think of no way to improve these titles.
This is the final list of my book’s forty-two chapters:
I don’t want to tell you what they mean right now, but if it’s fun for you to try to guess what chapters are about, and send it over to me, it would bring me great pleasure – and I can also send you all the answers if some of these mysterious titles bother you!
This list makes me so happy. It has old-time’y phrases, pop culture references, and quotes that I had to go really deep to find. It was important for me for this not to be just English, and so there are two chapter titles in other languages (fun fact: I don’t actually translate either anywhere, hoping the audience can figure it out). There is exactly one swear word – a fun nod to PG-13 movies – and exactly one ampersand (because it looks so cool in the font I’m using). There is nice symmetry in where the quotations are. And there are no cheap “key” puns.
I also wanted exactly one title to follow the “How to XXX” format. And the fact that the list ends with “please continue” (which is an actual quote relevant to the chapter!) brings me so much joy: the book might be over, but the story of keyboards won’t be.
I know it must feel silly to gush about this. But I am so proud of this list! The titles, the stories underneath, the progression of the big main story, and – maybe more importantly – the hope that this will actually get printed like this, after all these years.
I was telling someone recently how the first building blocks of becoming a writer for me was reading Stanisław Lem’s novels at a young age and marveling at the playfulness of language, the inventiveness, the world-building. I read and later re-re-re-re-read his books well into the night. I memorized verses, paragraphs, and – yes! – chapter titles. I was happy being lost in all of it.
I felt so envious of writers having this power – to make people feel this way. And, in time, as I started writing, I found myself closer and closer to that power.
That was decades ago. I don’t know how many people care about chapter titles as much as I do, but it’s wonderful for me to imagine someone else opening my book, from the back, inspecting the strange chapter titles – and, even for just a second, being happy too.
In Amsterdam this June, I gave an extended 45-minute version of my 2020 talk “I pressed ⌘B. You wouldn’t believe what happened next.” Almost all the extra runtime is actually about keyboards, so you might like it! Also, it has a messy and chaotic energy of someone who mildly forgot how to speak publicly but is really excited about doing that:
Up until next time!
This was newsletter №31 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents
† I am working with Glenn Fleishman who has a lot of experience here! Thank you, Glenn.