What’s in a Name? Judging Books by their Titles
You’ve heard that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but what about judging books by their titles? Despite the perennial admonitions from good-natured and tolerant book-lovers, I daresay we all do it all the time: take one look at a book’s cover, including the title and author, and you’ll decide in an instant to either find out a little more about it or pass it by.
I’ll confess I tend to automatically reject books that feature one or more of the following on the cover: a sword or other weapon, a robot, puddles of blood, a scantily-clad human (male or female), fluorescent colors, and any cursive or other ‘fun’ font. There will, of course, be exceptions to each of these rules, but they are the kind of guidelines that keep me blissfully far from the horrors of stereotypical genre fiction, be it crime, fantasy or chick lit / romance.
It’s harder to encapsulate my rules for a title. Harlequin romances are easy to avoid, with titles adhering to the formula of “The Rogue’s / Sheikh’s / Doctor’s / Cowboy’s / Highlander’s [fill in the blank here with: lover / baby / mistress / seduction, etc.].” Likewise, you can usually tell a mystery novel by its to-the-point title; the shorter and more blunt it is (Vanish, Predator, Hannibal – you get the picture), the more violent the book is likely to be. Fantasy titles range in length from the pithy (Dune, Mort, We) to the loquacious (“The Scroll / Chronicles / Legacy of X & the [adjective + item of booty]”), usually supplemented by series placement details – “Earth Wind and Fire #37” or similar.
Classic Titles, Abbreviated
You might not know that many favorite Shakespearean and Victorian titles were originally much longer. It’s not really Hamlet; it’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. We say David Copperfield, but the full title as Charles Dickens wanted it printed was The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). How’s that for a literary mouthful?
Many Victorians couldn’t resist subtitles that provided a little extra commentary on their characters, though these often get forgotten nowadays. For instance, William Makepeace Thackeray wanted his fable of an amoral young woman to be known as Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero – not just because it had a female protagonist instead, but also because its main character was not necessarily someone to be admired. And with Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy was making a plea for forgiveness and Christian compassion with a subtitle that dubbed the fallen Tess “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.”
But What Shall We Call It?
Gary Dexter’s Why Not Catch-21? is a fun reference book that tells the stories behind some famous books originally known by different titles. The author-chosen titles were, in many cases, changed to suit market-savvy publishers. Dexter limits himself to the stories of titles that aren’t obviously suggested by their content; “the title should not be explicable by reading the text of the book itself,” he explains. So T.S. Eliot’s epic poem The Wasteland, for example, had as its original title “He do the police in different voices.” Huh? Well, the eagle-eyed Victorian-lovers among you may have spotted a Dickens quote – that’s a line from Our Mutual Friend, in which Betty Higden praises the ventriloquist newspaper-reading talents of the peculiar foundling named ‘Sloppy.’
At Dexter’s blog, “How Books Got Their Titles,” you can read over 180 potted histories of how famous books got their titles. I have always enjoyed the lists of potential titles for Dickens’s Bleak House (East Wind, Tom-All-Alone’s and The Solitary House that was Always Shut Up are a few) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (contenders ranged from Trimalchio in West Egg to Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires – I’m rather partial to that one, I must say).
It’s hard to imagine such classics by another name now. One wonders, to paraphrase Shakespeare, would these literary roses by another name smell as sweet? I daresay they would, except now we would rave about First Impressions (instead of Pride and Prejudice) and The Last Man in Europe (instead of 1984).
Keep it Simple, Stupid?
My instinct is toward short, simple but still evocative titles. (As a picky book reviewer, I often mention when titles don’t quite do it for me.) I like puns – as long as they’re subtle – and literary allusions if they’re clever and not clichéd, but I’m still as susceptible as the next person to long-winded and startling titles, even though they’ve often let me down in the past.
Indeed, sometimes a really precocious or pretentious title can mask the fact that a book’s content is severely lacking. In my related article this week, I’ve listed some books that hooked me in with their fantastic titles but didn’t deliver the great story promised. I’ve not read any of Marina Lewycka’s books, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to comment, but her titles must be either genius or ridiculous (you tell me): A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, We Are All Made of Glue, and Various Pets Alive and Dead.
As always, there are exceptions to my keep-it-simple mantra, such as Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (I might not call it heartbreaking, but it is a touching and hilarious memoir of raising his little brother after their parents’ deaths) and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which, though I haven’t read it yet, is by all accounts truly wonderful – and the title is an allusion to an Ernest Hemingway short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”).
David Sedaris has gotten shtick from his publishers for choosing such deliberately opaque titles for his essay collections as Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, but he’s so darn funny he gets away with it.
- More Baths, Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself by Nick Hornby
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman (the title refers to the Hmong people’s superstitious explanation of what happens during epileptic seizures)
- Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott
- The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
- Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan (I discussed this one in detail in my article “Is Reading Selfish?”)
- What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam
- Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression by Gwyneth Lewis
- Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea by Donovan Hohn
- Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (Talk about a perfect use of an oxymoron!)
- Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China, Fuchsia Dunlop
The Best of the Worst
Since 1978 the Diagram Group and/or Britain’s The Bookseller magazine have co-sponsored an annual prize, the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. This isn’t precisely a ‘worst title’ of the year award, but it comes close. A few recent winners have included: The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs, and Cooking with Poo (an unfortunate consequence of its chef-author’s nickname, which means “crab” in Thai). Last year’s delightful winner was Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, though my vote went to How Tea Cosies Changed the World (by keeping tea warmer for longer, clearly – thereby contributing to global health and goodwill). Look out for your chance to vote next year!
Some of the best (or worst; take your pick) titles have been collected in two books that will make any browser of your coffee table fare chuckle: How to Avoid Huge Ships and Other Implausibly Titled Books (2008) and Baboon Metaphysics: and More Implausibly Titled Books (2009).
So, what’s in a name? Whether titles are long or short, abbreviated or extended, obvious or subtle, straightforward or strange, I reckon they have a surprising impact on our feelings about the books they grace. First impressions are lasting ones, and just as we judge books by their covers, we often judge them by their titles without even thinking about what we’re doing. Let that be a warning to all aspiring authors and publishing marketers among you.