GREAT BOOK TITLES: COME TAKE THE TEST!

0143034901.01.LZZZZZZZI have this vivid memory. I was at Chapter’s, perusing the tables and shelves, when I saw a display  with dozens and dozens of copies of a single book. It had such a beautiful cover: of a retro street lamp, and of a man looking over his shoulder, running toward his shadow and into the faded backdrop of an alley, which was also a book folding in on him. It was a beautiful drawing.

But the title: The SHADOW of the WIND.

The Shadow of the Wind!

What a title! It gave me shivers. So mysterious and dark; with whispers of magic and danger, I thought.

A title that kept its promises.

Never underestimate the importance of great novel titles, because they matter. In case you doubt it, try the following test.

HERE’S A LIST OF SOME OF THE TITLES THAT WERE ORIGINALLY PROPOSED FOR 17 CLASSIC BOOKS:

  1. The Last Man in Europe
  2. The Kingdom by the Sea
  3. A Satire, or A Contemporary Satire
  4. Fiesta
  5. Beauty from Ashes
  6. The Year of the Rose
  7.  All’s Well That Ends Well
  8. Panasonic
  9. Tote the Weary Load
  10. Trimalchio in West Egg                
  11. Second-Hand Lives
  12. The Mute
  13. Something That Happened
  14. First Impressions
  15. Dark House
  16. Mistress Mary
  17. Strangers From Within

NOW MATCH THOSE DISCARDED TITLES WITH THE  CLASSIC NOVELS THAT WERE EVENTUALLY PUBLISHED:

Find the real title among the following choices:

  1. Margaret Mitchell’s   Gone with the Wind
  2. William Golding’s   Lord of the Flies
  3. Jane Austen’s   Pride and Prejudice
  4. Ayn Rand’s   The Fountainhead
  5. John Steinbeck’s   Of Mice and Men
  6. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s  The Great Gatsby
  7. George Orwell’s   Animal Farm
  8. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace
  9. Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth
  10. George Orwell’s  Nineteen Eighty-Four  
  11. W. Somerset Maugham’s  Of Human Bondage
  12. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden
  13. William Faulkner’s   Light in August
  14. Don DeLillo’s  White Noise
  15. Carson McCullers’s  The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
  16. Vladimir Nabokov’s      Lolita
  17. Ernest Hemingway’s  The Sun Also Rises

The correct answers are :

(1/10)   (2/16)   (3/7)   (4/17)   (5/ 11)   (6/9)    (7/8)   (8/14)    (9/1)   (10/6)    (11/4)

(12/15)  (13/5)  (14/3)    (15/13)   (16/12)    (17/2)

(how well did you do?)

0743273567.01.LZZZZZZZIt seems impossible to me that Trimalchio in West Egg would ever have been considered  a contender for the honour of “Great American Novel”.

That’s because a good book title is a part of the work itself: it tells us something about the writer and gives us a strong sense of what to expect as readers; it captures our imagination and compels us to read the dust jacket and hopefully, the book. In that sense, the perfect title of a novel is both artistic and commercial.

And there’s no formula for creating a great novel title. Some are beautiful and poetic and some have terrific energy. Some are intriguing, or eccentric, while others are laugh-out-loud funny. Some are a single word and others, peculiar in their length.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE NOVEL TITLES? If you’re an avid reader, then the question is next to impossible to answer, our memories not being quite up to the task, I think. To help jar mine, I went looking online, where I found lots of lists.  In fact, there are lots of literary websites having fun with the theme of great book titles. Clipperton Publishing, for example, posted its 101 BEST BOOK TITLES OF ALL TIME, presented in categories like:

1. “INTRIGUING”

ex. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test , Tom Wolfe (Picador),  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the 0316017922.01.LZZZZZZZHeart of the American Dream, Hunter S. Thompson (Vintage)….

2. “DEFINE A NEW CONCEPT” 

ex. Outliers , Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown) …

3. “TRAVEL LUST”

ex. Seven Years in Tibet , Heinrich Harrer (Tarcher), The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer Eric Hansen (Vintage) …

Seven Years In Tibet Book2

4. “CHANGE A COMMON PHRASE”

ex. You’re Only Old Once , Dr. Seuss (Random House)…

5.”FUNNY”

ex. Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession,  ex. Erma Bombeck (McGraw-Hill)…

When it comes to funny, pulp fiction and hard case crime story titles can be wonderful, wry, chuckle-inducers. For instance, on the terrific Hard Case Crime website, I found some knock out titles (and subtitles!), like:

cover_big (2)BLOOD ON THE MINK,  The money was counterfeit―but the danger was real!, by Robert Silverberg (2012);cover_big

SAY IT WITH BULLETS, Richard Powell (2006)

LOSERS LIVE LONGER, She was no man’s damsel in distress, by Russell Atwood (2009)

or  LEMONS NEVER LIE (2006), Richard Stark

cover_big (4)

There are celebrated book titles that pair elements, creating a wonderful, mnemonic symmetry, like:

1451621175.01.LZZZZZZZCatch-22 (Joseph Heller); Generation X (Douglas Coupland); Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen); The 0517122707.01.LZZZZZZZSound and the Fury (William Faulkner); and Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), though John Steinbeck almost cornered the market with  The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden,  and Of Mice and Men (!).

There are eccentric, quirky and whimsical novel titles that stand out bravely, such as: A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (Robert M. Pirsig), and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams).

And I’ve noticed a recent trend toward really long book titles.

Just this week, I picked up Romain Puértolas’ most recent novel, The Little Girl Who Swallowed a Cloud as Big as The Eiffel Tower, and discovered that he also wrote The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe (the Library has copies of each, in the original French); titles that bring to mind Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared, of which, by now, almost everyone has heard, thanks, at least in part, to its descriptive and lively title.

While long-winded titles aren’t uncommon in the theatre (I can think of at least two marathon titles: Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade,  and Paul Zindel’s The effects of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds ; a drama in two acts, both of which can be found at the Library), I sense a bit of a bandwagon effect happening, and think that writers and editors want to be careful with their overuse, because to me, for these kinds of book titles, it’s a short path from startling and original, to gimmicky and affected.

There really is an art to picking a novel’s (or any book’s) title, but the best efforts of all of those involved can’t always account for our tastes and loves, as readers.

Here is a list of some of my favourite book titles. In many cases, my affection for them is linked to my love of the wonderful novels hidden inside. It can’t be helped.

0679417796.01.LZZZZZZZ– The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón: Of course.

**- The Alienist, Caleb Carr: archaic, atmospheric, striking (just like the novel’s cover image)

**- The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead: as austere and enigmatic as the novel.

(**two “IST” novels that now seem part of a trend, including The Preservationist and the Insurrectionist, which is 0679429220.01.LZZZZZZZthe title of at least 3 different books! )

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare (not a novel, but as magical and lyrical a title as you’ll ever find)

0060745940.01.LZZZZZZZCloud Atlas, by David Mitchell: as expansive, impossible and sublime as the story.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt  and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carre: two extremely evocative and intriguing titles.

The following four, because even when I was a young girl, their titles evoked a sense of longing and nostalgia, and a mixture of poignancy, sadness and even tragedy,that I knew was precious.

 A  Tree grows in Brooklyn,  Betty Smith0618526412.01.LZZZZZZZ

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson Mc Cullers

These are the titles I’ve settled on today.

What are the novel titles that stand out for you?

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4 thoughts on “GREAT BOOK TITLES: COME TAKE THE TEST!

  1. I’ve always liked Bill Bryson’s book on his wanderings through Europe. A title like “Neither Here nor There” leaves much to the imagination, as a trip to nowhere in particular should.

  2. The Shadow of the Wind is a wonderful one! I really loved the intrigue of A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain; I was instantly drawn to it when I saw it at the bookshop. Another very evocative one was The Kiss of the Spider Woman (much better in its native Spanish – El Beso de la Mujer Araña). One Hundred Years of Solitude almost doesn’t affect me anymore because I’ve heard it mentioned so many times, but I think it’s one of the great titles. The Shining is one of my favourites too… So many brilliant book titles!!

  3. Mmmm…El beso de la Mujer Araña. Perhaps even more exotic, though I loved the English title, and the movie, even more. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read Puig’s novel (yet!), though he is interviewed in the special features of the movie DVD.

    I wondered what drew you to A Man Came Out of a Door, because the reviews suggested a pretty tough story: just goes to show what a great title can do (for the author!).

    One Hundred Years of Solitude was on almost every online list. It feels almost biblical.

    Thanks Cathy. if any more come to mind, don’t be shy. 🙂

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