Monday, September 13, 2010

Name game

We talk about cover art a lot and how that helps determine our opinion of a book ("Don't judge a book by its cover!" even though we all do), but what about the title? How often does the title draw you in and tell you, "Okay, there's a book I need to read"?

If you're me, often.

I recently purchased Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Enemies, A Love Story", several months ago I read a book called "A Honeymoon in Space", and my obsession with Primo Levi began with the title "The Periodic Table". More often than not, I find myself wanting to read a book because of its title, not so much because of its cover art. Even though I know that typically both title and cover are strongly influenced by the publishers, I can't help but feel that the title says more about the book than a picture ever could.

The thing is, a title can also drive me away from a book. Cutesy titles can be endearingly humorous at times, but often it's titles that are too self-referential or pretentious that make me want to throw the book against a wall. Then there are titles that stretch on for too long and have nonfiction subtitles: "Actual title regarding phenomenon or important character: A Blah's Blah-blah with Blah-blah blah" (find the nearest nonfiction book to you, whether memoir or not; chances are it has a subtitle that fits the bill).

There are formulaic titles too, just as there are formulaic, standard covers. I once encountered on a blog (and now unfortunately cannot find...) a list of words commonly found in historical fiction titles. The blogger cynically said you could take just about every combination of two words on the list and come up with an existing historical fiction novel. The same goes for many ambiguously titled "literary fiction" novels (mentioned here and discussed a little more at length).

This time ignoring the lack of wisdom in titling books so in line with formulas, I have to wonder how much other readers are influenced by titles. I find that a book with a punchy title can entice me even as the summary, the cover, or other factors might not. For example, my decision to read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian before The Road was perhaps strengthened by the fact that Blood Meridian sounds way cooler based on title alone (it should be noted that I still have not read The Road, which kind of has a lame title). This was also the case with my choice of Meir Shalev's A Pigeon and a Boy over the much less intriguingly titled The Blue Mountain (which has a significantly more interesting name in the original Hebrew: A Russian Novel. Still not as good as A Pigeon and a Boy, but not so boring either).

Ultimately, one of the most important aspects of a book is its title. This is how we remember the book, how we classify it, how we categorize it, and how, in a sense, we define it. Too often I find myself forgetting the exact title of a book because it isn't memorable, or doesn't encompass the book well, or simply makes no sense. This in turn affects my feelings toward the book itself - a book that has an unmemorable title is bound to be an unmemorable book. And though a good title doesn't necessarily imply a good book (The Yiddish Policemen's Unit comes to mind...), a strong title can urge me to pull an unexpected book off the library shelf (The Inverted World) and lead me to a world I would have most likely ignored otherwise.

As for me, I intend to continue seeking out cool titled books. Because hey - who doesn't want to read Captain Blood?

4 comments:

  1. I love books with interesting titles as well, and frankly, with there being like a million or so books out there these days, a good title can help me separate the wheat from the chaff. One of the books I really want to read, for it's title alone is An Abundance of Katherines.

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  2. Titles totally get me, way more than covers. The most recent book I'm dying to read just because the title is so cool is: Orion You Came and Took All my Marbles by Kira Henehan. Probably one of those ambiguously titled literary fiction books - although I think this book has a noir detective element. In any case, a fantastic title

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  3. Random reader comment: have you ever seen this blog (http://betterbooktitles.com)? Some of them are pretty funny, especially if you've read the book.

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  4. I love books with nice titles and covers.

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