I 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:
- The Last Man in Europe
- The Kingdom by the Sea
- A Satire, or A Contemporary Satire
- Beauty from Ashes
- The Year of the Rose
- All’s Well That Ends Well
- Tote the Weary Load
- Trimalchio in West Egg
- Second-Hand Lives
- The Mute
- Something That Happened
- First Impressions
- Dark House
- Mistress Mary
- Strangers From Within
NOW MATCH THOSE DISCARDED TITLES WITH THE CLASSIC NOVELS THAT WERE EVENTUALLY PUBLISHED:
Find the real title among the following choices:
- Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind
- William Golding’s Lord of the Flies
- Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
- Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead
- John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men
- F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
- George Orwell’s Animal Farm
- Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace
- Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth
- George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
- W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage
- Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden
- William Faulkner’s Light in August
- Don DeLillo’s White Noise
- Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
- Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
- Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
(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?)
It 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:
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) …
4. “CHANGE A COMMON PHRASE”
ex. You’re Only Old Once , Dr. Seuss (Random House)…
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:
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
There are celebrated book titles that pair elements, creating a wonderful, mnemonic symmetry, like:
Catch-22 (Joseph Heller); Generation X (Douglas Coupland); Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen); The Sound 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.
**- 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 the 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)
– Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell: as expansive, impossible and sublime as the story.
– 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 Smith
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?