A Book By Any Other Name…

We know not to judge a book by its cover, but what about judging a book by its title? How many times have you picked-up a book because you were intrigued by the title? Or, ignored a book because the title didn’t capture your interest? Book titles are important; perhaps, as important as the content. Without a good title to catch the eye, books are more likely to languish on the shelf as readers give it a pass.

Writers often anguish over titles, considering and rejecting dozens before settling on just the right one. Finding a good title for a book is not as simple as one might think. Consider the titles Tote the Weary Load, Mules in Horses’ Harnesses, Bugles Sang True and Tomorrow is Another Day. Rather uninteresting and nondescript, don’t you think? Margaret Mitchell went through all these titles before she finally decided on Gone with the Wind. Would we have been as eager to read Harper Lee’s book if it had been titled Atticus instead of To Kill a Mockingbird? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice started out as First Impressions. William Golding’s first novel was called Strangers from Within, but is now known as Lord of the Flies. The Great Gatsby could have ended up as Trimalchio in West Egg. And Catch-11 was thankfully changed to Catch-22.

As with everything else, titles are also a matter of trend. A glance at 19th-century classics reveals an inclination for naming books after the main character: Madame Bovary, Oliver Twist, Anna Karenina, Silas Marner or even, Moby Dick. Another popular title source for 19th century authors was location: Wuthering Heights, Mill on the Floss, Mansfield Park, Washington Square. Writers of the 20th century often employed poetry: Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, citing Robert Burns); A Handful of Dust (Waugh, quoting T. S. Eliot); For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway, lifting from John Donne); Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald, referring to John Keats). Today, quirky-lyrical titles are in vogue — titles such as The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore or The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.

I’ll admit that I am a pushover for a good title. I’ll sometimes read a book based on its title alone.  These are a few titles that have caught my interest: Fig Season, Cold Comfort Farm, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I’m Off Then, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, How to Fall in Love with a Man Who Lives in a Bush, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself.

Posted in Readers

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