Here in the shed this week, I’ve been thinking about book titles. I like to have one decided early when I’m working on something new, which I am doing. Choosing a title helps me focus on the story’s theme, the book’s emotional center. So, I came up with one for a new manuscript-in-progress. I am really excited about this title, discovered after a good deal of research and soul searching.
Titles of books, short stories, essays, poems. They are important, yet, but how important?And what are your favorites and why?
Certainly how we feel about a title can be linked to how much we like the work it names. But for the sake of this post, I want to focus, if possible, on titles alone. What makes a certain title stand out and another not so much?
Several people have told me the title of my latest my memoir, The Consequence of Stars is a good one. That’s so nice to hear. But when I ask why they like it, the answers are all over the place. It is poetic. It flows. There’s a grace to it. Or simply, I don’t know. I just like it.
Sometimes a title creates drama or suggests suspense or conflict, as the work might allow. There are many that do this well but for the thriller genre there are few titles better than The Hunt for Red October.
Publishers suggest a good book title should be short, easy to remember, descriptive. But then you have to consider the one-word titles that certainly meet the short requirement, but are far from descriptive—Ulysses, 1984, and Dracula.
What are your favorites? What titles speak to you? Here are ten that I love and a short description on why I admire them.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. What are those “things” and why are they so important? And maybe those things are not just physical items, but emotions and heartbreak.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It is the temperature at which book paper burns. That’s why it is so perfect.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. Simple and it flows like a parable, which is exactly what this classic is.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. What kind of place is no longer fit for people of a certain age and why? The title evoke mystery and concern. Plus, it’s the best “steal” ever. The title is taken from a William Butler Yeats poem.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. This title breaks all the rules and that’s what makes it marvelous.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. The best, and most surprising juxtaposition in a title, ever.
Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman. The 1960s Yippie revolutionary said everything about materialism and capitalism when he gave this book its name.
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. Who doesn’t know or remember this title? It is simply unforgettable.
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. The title comes from the Bible. And, an aside, this prizewinning book has the best opening section (nine paragraphs) of any novel that I have ever read.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One of the most poetic and yet revealing titles of all time—secret love in the midst of deadly infection and poverty.
Great titles are like beautiful little poems, evoking great meaning and emotion in only a few syllables. They give one insight to the story to come and, if they are good, present a base for marketing the work. Great titles make that work easier. But first and foremost, a title must be true to the story. Great titles do not make great books. But great books, almost always have great titles.