It was Wild Bill Shakespeare himself who once penned the words “What’s in a name. That which we call a rose/By any other name should smell as sweet.” The words are spoken by one of the Bard’s more famous female characters, Juliet of House Capulet. She’s telling the hours-old love of her life that she doesn’t care that his last name of Montague brands him an enemy of her house. Whatever his name was, she would love him anyways.
Once you’re able to part the curtain of deep sighs and introspective smiles at this grand romantic gesture, however, you find that you can’t count on Juliet’s statement as book recommendation advice. And really, shouldn’t that be what’s most important here? I mean, that play would be even better if it was about Juliet recommending books to Romeo rather than “falling in love” in the course of three days and faking her own death and being dumb and…and…and…
Well, that’s probably a blog post for another day. But those words are still poignant because, while we shouldn’t decide not to marry someone based on his or her name, titles are important in other instances.
When I used to teach creative writing, it seemed like I had one or two students each year who would persistently turn in stories without names. “So and So’s Short Story” one would read. “So and So’s Creative Nonfiction Piece” would be the title of another.
I’d try to get them to see that the title was even more important than your opening line. It’s the hook BEFORE the hook. If they still didn’t seem to understand, I’d tell them this story:
There’s a paper I wrote in college that sticks out in my mind because it was the only “A” paper I ever received from a particular professor. I don’t say that with annoyance. Every grade she gave me was deserved. I was just really proud of finally getting an “A” from her. My paper focused on comparing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” with Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-hearted River.”
A few years ago, I pulled this paper out of a big stack of stuff I’d saved. Before I had a chance to revel in my old glory, I noticed the title. “Take a Hike and Find Yourself.”
It makes me cringe to even type that. Unoriginal and uninspiring. I’d tell my students that story and they’d laugh and shake their heads. Most of the time they’d even start getting more creative with their titles.
There are two things that cause me to pull a book off a library shelf when I’m searching for a new novel to consume. An interesting title and/or cool cover art. I know, I know. “Don’t judge a book by its cover blah blah blah.” There’s something to that of course. Many great books have been housed in uninteresting covers. But a story’s title is a huge selling point. Authors and their publishers should be putting some thought into these words. They may be the only words a potential reader sees.
Here are some titles that got me to pull books off the shelf and read them:
Seth Baumgartner’s Love Manifesto by Eric Luper – I picked this up because it seemed like a funny sort of grand gesture and I enjoy grand gestures in YA books. I wasn’t wrong. This book is hilarious. A guy gets dumped at an Applebee’s and decides to podcast about love. Highly recommended.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2012 Alex Awards) – This title was obviously chosen to hook gamers and that’s how it got me. A book about playing in a massive role-playing-game with dozens of classic video game references throughout? I was totally in for that. It definitely delivered too.
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2009 Best Books for Young Adults, 2011 Odyssey Honor Book, 2011 Amazing Audiobooks) – Just a weird assortment of words for a title that drew me in from the shelf. Then I started reading the book and it’s actually about aliens. And other things. First book in a trilogy and really, really good.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – Seemed too innocent for a Gaiman story. It turned out delightfully creepy while somewhat heartwarming. Gaiman has a knack for that. There’s also this evil, scary flying blanket thing.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – Anyone who claims any sort of love for science fiction will likely attest a love for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner movie. That movie is based on this novel by Philip K. Dick. Look at that title. It’s beautiful and weird and strange and you know if you saw it on a shelf, you wouldn’t be able to help but grab it. The book is good too, dealing with that age-old issue: At what point do androids become sentient beings? Speaking of titles. Philip K. Dick was a master. Just check out some of these other winners:
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
Foster, You’re Dead!
The Eyes Have It
Granted, most of those are short stories, but still, those titles are amazing.
No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy – I love McCarthy’s novels but I especially love the title of this book. It’s a sort of harsh poetry. His novels aren’t for everyone, particularly if you like quotation marks, but I adore his books.
I’m not telling you that you should pick a book based simply on a title. I AM postulating that when a brief snatch of words on the front of a book catches your eye, it’s a definite possibility that the author’s got a good story to back up a good title.
What are some titles that have caught your eye as you’ve browsed?
— Ethan Evans, currently reading The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson