I went to my bookshelf and looked at the titles of some of my favourite novels. I saw Stones from the River, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Long Song, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the Cellist of Sarajevo, and Fall on Your Knees, among many other – in no way lesser – novels. I said the titles out loud, and the delicious memories of these stories, their mysteries, and their myths swept over me.
I took the books down and put them in a collapsing pile on my bed-side table. “What was at play here,” I wondered. “Why were the titles so intriguing?” The nouns in the titles were precise; the verbs, though few in this sample, were active. There is no denying that Snow Falling on Tall Trees does not have the same ring to it as does Snow Falling on Cedars. What else did these titles have in common? They were lyrical and three of them had to do with music and musical instruments.
Titles that quote
Some of the most successful book titles of all time are taken from literature. Literary quotations as titles can be conscious allusions to themes of older works, or are chosen simply because they are memorable. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s haunting poem, “The Lady of Shalott” was the source of at least two book titles: one by Agatha Christie, titled The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and another by Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River.
And who can fault John Green for naming his best-selling novel The Fault in Our Stars, after a haunting phrase from Shakespeare’s, Julius Caesar? Javier Marias’s titles – A Heart so White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me – are Shakespearean, the former from Macbeth and the latter from Richard III.
It’s true, of course, that evocative titles carry the promise of an equally good book. As a reader, I consider the title twice – once before I start reading the work and again after I’ve finished. Many successful titles gain hidden layers of meaning as I read, so they pack an extra punch when reflected upon the second time.
As important as the book
I would go as far as to say that writing a memorable book title is like writing a poem. Exaggerated and extravagant language and startlingly sensuous images enchant the eye, as it reads, and the ear, as it hears. A good title is laden with hidden messages, has a distinctive voice, and opens up beyond the ordinary into the realm of limitless possibility.
Take And Quiet Flows the Don, the four volume epic by Mikhail Sholokhov. The title, a plaintive rhapsody, evokes a slow-winding song like the river and the interminability of sorrow, lost or only partly discernible in earlier translations titled, Quiet Don and Quietly Flows the Don.
And then again, what could be simpler than Life of Pi, a title made up of three single-syllable words? Does its phenomenal success show that the names of things are just that, names of things? The names let us refer to a particular “thing” and nothing more. If we love that “thing,” we eventually come to love the name.
While writing this piece, it occurred to me that in days gone by, book titles simply named the character, the setting, and sometimes the theme. Consequently, we had Robinson Crusoe and Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights and Frenchman’s Creek.
Then, the theme itself is an open book when you consider titles such as Crime and Punishment and The Awakening. A brilliant example of the title encapsulating the theme can be found in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Understanding the motives of the misfit, who embodies evil, and understanding what “goodness” means by contrast is one of the central puzzles of the short story.
A word about almost-titles: When the corporation’s lawyers protested, Don DeLillo changed Panasonic to White Noise. William Golding’s Strangers from Within was rescued from the slush pile at Faber and Faber and rechristened Lord of the Flies. Fitzgerald remained convinced that the title The Great Gatsby wasn’t a good one even after it was published; in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the book carrying his previous title suggestion – The High-Bouncing Lover. The reading world would have been a different place had those titles stuck!
The twist in the head
A Clockwork Orange. Now there’s a title. Anthony Burgess claimed that he overheard the phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange” in a London pub. He fell in love with it and wanted to use it as a book title. Let’s hear Burgess say what he saw in this title: “The phrase ‘as queer as a clockwork orange’ is good old east London slang. Now, obviously, I’ve given it an extra dimension. I’ve implied the junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet – in other words, life, the ‘orange’- and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined. I’ve brought them together in this kind of oxymoron.” Maybe Jess Walter was listening when he named his book the oxymoronic Beautiful Ruins, giving voice to life’s inherent conflicts and incongruities.
Also, turning a well-known phrase on its head intrigues. I’m thinking of Live and Let Die, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and The War of Art. As do quirky juxtapositions such as, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or The Devil Wears Prada. Audaciously overstated titles make you sit up and pay attention. Who didn’t do a double-take when they first read reviews of Dave Eggers’s memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?
Have you ever wondered about The Hobbit? JRR Tolkien, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, was grading exams one day when he found that a student had left a whole page in his exam booklet blank. Tolkien, for reasons unknown even to him, wrote on the page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
And on a personal note
I named my own unpublished work of fiction, set in Goa and Portugal, Trousseaus for Ragdolls. I gleaned it from the manuscript, and I chose it for being unusual and for capturing the spirit of the book, its sadness and nostalgia, and perhaps the futility of so many of our actions and thoughts. I’ve been told that it’s obscure, might appeal only to women, doesn’t tell you what the novel is about and – to top it all – isn’t particularly lyrical.
So here is a selection of the titles I have brainstormed. They are from poems by Camões – a name as familiar to the Portuguese as that of Shakespeare to the English-speaking world. In fact, Luis Vaz de Camões was Shakespeare’s contemporary and spent twelve long years in Goa. From my re-reading of Camões, I have Of Gold and Purest Light and Songs of the Sea and the Night.
I’m still considering We have the Stars in Common from a poem by Jorge Luis Borges and It’s the Happy Heart that Breaks, a slightly inscrutable Sara Teasdale phrase.
Nothing Deeper Came Along. Wish me luck!