War and Peace. Best book title of all time.
OK, I’ve never actually read War and Peace, but by the title I get the gist: there is some war and some peace. No need to read the book. I feel smarter all ready.
The best book titles leave nothing to chance. In fact, some of the best titles tell you what the book is about in case the actual text of the book is too hard to interpret. Kafka’s The Trial, one of my all-time favorite reads, is a good example. Without the head’s up that Joseph K. is preparing for a trial of some sort, the reader might become too confused (if not depressed) and not continue beyond the first few pages. Kafka’s editor was savvy and really knew how to market a book.
The same could be argued for the editors at Shakepeare’s publishing house. They knew how to position a book centuries before Nan Talese or even Judith Regan. No matter how abstruse and convoluted Shakespeare’s texts or stories were, his people knew not to mess around with the titles. Romeo and Juliet? Yup, there is a dude named Romeo and a girl named Juliet and the plot has something to do with both of them. Othello? Don’t ask me anything about this play, but I am pretty sure it included someone who was named “Othello.” And I am going on faith that the various King Henrys and Richards are prominently featured in those plays. Even The Tempest, in which I played a non-speaking nymph in my school’s 8th grade production, is aptly named (A storm? Yes.), although many middle schoolers may have to google the title to see what the word “tempest” means.
So why is it that some writers feel the need to complicate matters by naming their works something cryptic? Harper Lee: I saw the film version of your book and don’t recall any mockingbirds—or feathered creatures of any kind, come to think of it. I’m pretty sure the director would have hired an animal trainer to be on set if the bird played any sort of actual role in the book. Maya Angelou: Why does that caged bird sing? And what’s up with so many birds in literature? Jane Austen usually doesn’t disappoint with her spot-on titles, so what happened with Pride and Prejudice? And J.D. Salinger? I know you stick in a sentence about Holden wanting to be in a field of rye catching kids, but I still don’t get it. And I was an Ivy League English major. Come on, guys, isn’t high school stressful enough without complicating matters? What kind of ego must these authors have that they want students to write entire essays attempting to interpret the handful of words chosen for their titles?
Maybe the bar is set too low when we first encounter books. It isn’t fair to suddenly foist these enigmatic book titles on someone going through puberty. I blame Dr. Seuss. Yeah, yeah. The Cat is indeed wearing that infernal Hat. The kids are Hopping on their poor father, aka “Pop.” Wouldn’t you know The Foot Book is about feet? There’s a shocker. And he called himself a doctor.