Twitter demands the news of the day be condensed into 140 characters. In order to squeeze in our pithy commentary, we crop and substitute, abbreviate and summarise. Yet, Leo Tolstoy was able to use just three words to frame his 1,225-page novel, War and Peace, while a book that continues to influence political discourse after more than half a century carries the four-character title of 1984.
In the space of just a few words or even numbers, the titles of books can capture the mood, theme and style of the stories within. More than once, I have been persuaded to buy a book simply as a result of the poetry of its title.
The first time that I remember being won over in this way (apart from when I spotted Icecreams for Rosie as a child – who wouldn’t love a book about icecream?) was when I saw The Unbearable Lightness of Being on a bookshelf. It seemed to me that the title was a profound and beautiful statement in itself, regardless of the content of the book. Happily, I enjoyed the book in its entirety and it provided a gateway for me into Milan Kundera’s body of work, including the other gorgeously-titled Of Laughter and Forgetting.
I consider a book title to be a window into its interior. It can be whimsical or terse, evocative or opaque. And sometimes, it is the simple rather than the prosaic, which best tells the story.
Jane Harper’s bestseller, The Dry, is an example of a succinct title that aligns perfectly with the landscape in which the story is set – a dusty, drought-stricken farming town in Australia. In just two words, it sets a scene and reveals a mood that reflects the harsh environment of heat and sparseness.
The more poetic title of Cry, the Beloved Country is beautiful and poignant, but is also powerfully indicative of the story that lies within. It speaks of the narrator’s despair at the problems facing South Africa, including the disintegration of the tribal community, crime, the flight to urban areas and the societal structures that will later lead to apartheid.
In the typical fashion of Raymond Carver, the title of his book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is ambiguous, leaving the reader with more questions than answers. And fittingly, anyone reading the book hoping to find out just what we are talking about when we talk about love might be left disappointed, or at least unsure they have reached the intended conclusions.
The same ambiguity is present in Way to Paradise, by Peruvian Nobel prize-winner, Mario Vargas Llosa. While it would seem that the title’s ‘paradise’ speaks to the lush land of Polynesia to which celebrated painter Paul Gauguin was drawn, but this word belies the pains he endured as a result of the ‘unspeakable illness’ with which he suffered throughout the book. The itchy, stinging, rotten sores on his legs reveal a situation that is far from paradise. While the title might suggest optimism, the characters’ journeys were riddled with poor health, trials and frustrations. And so, perhaps the title alludes more closely to a paradise lost, than one found.
Author John Irving spoke about the significance of titles when he spoke about the order in which he crafts a novel:
“Titles are important; I have them before I have books that belong to them. I have last chapters in my mind before I see first chapters, too. I usually begin with endings, with a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue.”
However, titles were not as much of a driving force for writer Judy Blume, author of the memorably titled Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, who said,
“I always have trouble with titles for my books. I usually have no title until the editor has to present the book and calls me frantically, ‘Judy, we need a title.’’
There goes the romance of the title that was ‘meant to be’.
And sometimes, a book with a poetic title, that attracts the reader and sets their expectations, fails to deliver on their promise. I was immediately drawn to Atlas Shrugged by its title, particularly when choosing between reading it or Ayn Rand’s other popular tome, Fountainhead. While I was struck by the power and poetry of the explanation of the title within the book, I cannot say that I enjoyed much else in the novel. In a way, I was disappointed that the title did not deliver what I felt it had promised.
The power of a title becomes clear when considering the impact an alternative title for a well-loved book. Some of the other titles under consideration by F Scott Fitzgerald for what was later to become The Great Gatsby included Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, Trimalchio in West Egg and Trimalchio. Would the book, considered by some to be the great American novel, be as enduringly popular if it had been given its original name?
It is doubtful whether Gone with the Wind would have captured quite as many hearts if Margaret Mitchell had stuck with her original title, Mules in Horses’ Harness.
What is clear is that titles are much more than just words – they shape our expectations, reflect a book’s character, and help cement a story in our memories. At their best, they can capture the reader’s imagination, before they even open the first page.
What is your favourite book title?