The novels’ calling card: What makes a good book title?

The four oldest Bennet sisters relaxing at home

The four oldest Bennet sisters relaxing at home

What do The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies, One Hundred Years of Solitude and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People have in common? 

They’re all on Barack Obama’s nightstand, just waiting to be read come the end of next year when he’ll have a bit less on his ‘to do’ list? Maybe.

They’ve all been adapted for TV or film? Close, but Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies hasn’t quite made it to the screen yet. It’s due out next year, which kind of scuppered my petitioning of the BBC, who I hoped would finally pay attention to my ( hundreds of ) emails and put their costume drama budget where their mouth is. Sunday nights after Antiques Roadshow is surely the best slot for a blood-soaked Elizabeth Bennet giving the zombie hordes the ass-kicking of a Regency lifetime? Alas, it was not to be.

Anyway, have you guessed the link yet?

A gold star and a sticky bun* if you guessed they all appear on the Goodreads Best Book Titles list, alongside To Kill a Mockingbird, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and my personal favourite Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank: A Slightly Tarnished Southern Belle’s Words of Wisdom.

Some of these titles are so familiar, they’ve passed into our cultural landscape. In fact, they’ve not only passed into the cultural landscape, they’ve been eroded by cultural wind, rain, hail and snow until they’re now merely molehills in the lawn of language. What I mean is, although the books are still strong, the very ubiquity of their titles has lessened their impact.

But look at them with sparkly new eyes and a brain fresh from a cotton wash cycle, and you’ll revisit their power.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In a phrase of genius, Douglas Adams has summoned every dogeared travel guide you’ve ever seen tucked down a backpacker’s jockeys, taken us by the hand and opened up a universe of adventure and Vogon poetry. You know what the book’s about before you’ve read a word.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. A spin on Dale Carnegie’s  self-help guide How to Win Friends and Influence People, you just know this is the loser’s guide to gaffs and social faux pas on a heroic scale.

I could go on, but I can sense your attention drifting and if I don’t make my point soon, I fear you’ll skip to that video that’s trending on You Tube – you know, the one with the juggling bears and the armadillo in a track suit.

My question is, what’s in a name? And the answer most definitely is a damn lot, thanks for asking.

I can’t say I agree with all of the choices. For instance, in pole position on the Best Titles Grid is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. Now, for a serious sci-fi novel which dissects the very concept of what it means to be human, I’ve always thought it was a clunky, rather jokey title. Although, it is an intriguing one and at least hints at the contents more than the catchier Blade Runner, which was what Ridley Scott renamed the story when he adapted it for the screen.

Would How to Win Friends have been as popular if it hadn’t referenced the title of another book that’s passed into common usage and put a darkly twisted, low beat spin on it? Would One Hundred Years of Solitude have become one of the classics of  twentieth century literature if it had been called ‘The bloke who built a shiny city where  generations of his family suffer weird misfortunes?’ Well, probably, yes, assuming the contents of a book is still the most important thiing.

But Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have found his task more difficult if he hadn’t devised such a beautiful and evocative title for his novel.

So even if the title doesn’t have to sum up the plot of the novel, it has to intrigue us just enough to scan the blurb, to make us open the cover and dip our toes in a new world of words.

The title is the fishing hook, the calling card of the novel.

What’s your favourite book title and why? 

*Sticky buns not provided.

5 thoughts on “The novels’ calling card: What makes a good book title?

    1. Thanks, love. No, I’m not sure I’d be able to pick a best either. I generally dislike ‘name’ titles (Martin Chuzzlewit, David Copperfield et al) because they tell you so little about the story. It’s so hard because if you know a book well, the title is coloured by your reading experience, the two becoming inseperable. I do think Douglas Adams had a talent for these things – who could resist reading ‘So long, and thanks for all the fish’, or ‘The long, dark tea-time of the soul’?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I admit I have not read any of his books at all but they are great titles!
        I love “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” as titles… both so inspirational and both have air of defiance/resilience in them I love.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, yes, very good, especially ‘I know why… ‘ – it has real power. I’ve only read the Douglas Adams titles on the list, no others I mentioned. Though ‘Stop dressing your six-year-old like a skank’ is such a great title, I’m tempted 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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