Book Titles: “What’s in a Name?”

By Carole Reedy

Myriad factors enter into the success and sales of a book: the popularity and marketing reach of the author, the book’s jacket and design, the reviews, length, friends’ recommendations, and, of course, the subject, style, and focus.

Add to that list the title of the book.

Authors generally prefer to create their own titles, but since publishers take part in the financial risk and success of the book, they, too, have input. Based on market research, a publisher may have a better insight into reader expectations than the author. Of course, a well-established, proven-popular author may have more influence in the final decision than an unknown writer.

Authors themselves may change their title decisions as the process of publication proceeds. Usually, the author starts with a working title but is certainly not wedded to it. Books go through several metamorphoses before the final sentence is penned, so honing the working title is likely.

Titles can reflect the subject and general ambience of a book. They can be clever, funny, explanatory, or express a feeling. The title is the first thing a reader sees or hears and is significant in swaying a reader to purchase and read a book.

To understand the process of choosing a title, let’s look at actual titles of famous novels to understand how they were named and even re-named.

Often authors derive their titles from other sources familiar to their readers. The most popular seem to be the Bible, Shakespeare, poetry, popular phrases within or outside the book, or the names of particular characters. The idea is to attract attention to the book by conveying the essence of the book and the intentions of author in a succinct phrase.

Inspired by the Bible

The Grapes of Wrath, the title of John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is a reference to a passage in the Book of Revelations that reads, “So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.”

The title is also a phrase from the first stanza of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the lyrics penned by Julia Ward Howe in 1861 to what was until then a military marching song called “John Brown’s Body.”

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.

The title was suggested by Steinbeck’s wife Carol, and the author deemed it a worthy choice.

The title East of Eden, another Steinbeck novel (1952), is a symbolic re-creation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel woven into a history of California’s Salinas Valley, a popular location for Steinbeck’s novels. The title refers to Genesis 4:16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden” (King James Version).

Inspired by Shakespeare

The title Remembrance of Things Past, the approximately 1,250,000-word novel by Marcel Proust, could also fall into our “Inspired by Poetry” category below. The first English translation of the title (by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, 1922) was derived from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Proust wrote his 1913 seven-volume masterpiece in French, with the title À la recherche du temps perdu, which more directly translates into In Search of Lost Time. Proust did not approve of Moncrieff’s, title although he made no attempt to change it. He felt it did not accurately convey his intended meaning of memory as involuntary rather than voluntary. Proust did, however, praise Moncrieff’s translation of the first volume, Swann’s Way, possibly the only praise he ever handed out to a translator of his works.

The working title David Foster Wallace originally used for his thousand-page magnum opus Infinite Jest (1996) was A Failed Entertainment. The novel is partly based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the ultimate title refers to Act V, Scene 1, when Hamlet holds up the skull of the court jester Yorick and says

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962; film version 1983) is a dark fantasy novel featuring two 13-year-old best friends and their nightmarish experience with a carnival. The title is taken from MacBeth Act 4, Scene 1, when the witches predict the outcome of the play:

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.

A most appropriate title for Bradbury’s novel, as it teeters between fantasy and horror. On his 80th birthday, Bradbury enjoyed the writing process as much as ever before. “The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me. The feeling I have every day is very much the same as it was when I was 12.”

Inspired by Character Names

J.K. Rowling named the first book of her blockbuster Harry Potter series Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Scholastic, the publisher, felt children might reject a book with the word “philosopher” in the title and changed it to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998).

The Great Gatsby (1925) was originally titled Trimalchio in West Egg by the author F. Scott Fitzgerald. The publisher thought the title too obscure (Trimalchio was a character in the Satyricon of Petronius, a Roman writer in the late 1st century CE), and suggested a change. All agreed, and the book came to become one of the most beloved pieces of American literature.

Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The perfect title for this classic stream-of-conscious masterpiece written by Virginia Woolf, which takes place one day in 1923 in the life of the title character. The working title for the book was The Hours.

Fifty years later author Michael Cunningham wrote a highly regarded novel with exactly that title. It relates the stories of three different women – Virginia Woolf, on the day in 1923 she starts writing Mrs. Dalloway; Laura Brown, a depressed American housewife who is reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1949; and Clarissa Vaughn, who (sometime in the 1980s or 90s) is hosting a party to celebrate her friend Richard, a poet and novelist who has just received a lifetime achievement award but is dying of AIDS.

The film The Hours, starring Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughn, came out in 2002 (a British film titled Mrs. Dalloway was released in 1997, is a faithful retelling of the book and starred Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Dalloway); The Hours was turned into an opera by composer Kevin Puts; it debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in November 2022.

Charles Dickens (1812-70) is known for colorful characters in his trove of novels and writings. His unique style incorporated linguistic technique to invent characters whose actions were reflected in their names (Mr. Bumble, Scrooge).

In all, Dickens created 989 characters, and many more individuals, for his books. No wonder he titled many of his works with the main character. Among those are some of his most beloved works: Nicolas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit, Little Dorrit, Barnaby Rudge, and Edwin Drood.

Inspired by Phrases (often from the text of the book) and/or general theme

Ayn Rand at first chose the title The Strike for her monumental classic novel Atlas Shrugged (1957), her last and longest book and one she considered her magnum opus. However, she thought perhaps that title revealed too much. Her husband actually suggested the title we know, which refers to a conversation between two of her characters. One personage notes that the greater the effort Atlas made, the heavier the world became and the best one can do is “to shrug.”

Faith Martin’s DI Hillary Greene series, about a British detective who lives on a narrowboat, originally had “Narrow” in all the titles: A Narrow Escape, On the Straight and Narrow, Narrow Is the Way, etc., but the titles were changed when a new publisher took over. In place of “Narrow,” the word “Murder” was used to reassure the readers they were getting a murder mystery (Murder on the Oxford Canal [2004], Murder of the Bride [2006], etc.) The new titles seem to be selling better than the originals.

Inspired by Poetry

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934; film version 1962, TV mini-series 1985), is the fourth and final novel by the formidable jazz-age writer. It was not well-received by critics at the time, but time proved them wrong. The title comes from John Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale”:

Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874; film versions, 1967, 2015, among others) bears a title drawn from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750), which was inspired at least in part by the death of the poet Richard West in 1742:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

In a review of the 2015 film (The Guardian, April 15, 2014), British writer and journalist Lucasta Miller tells us that the title of the book is an ironic literary joke; in his poem, Gray is idealizing noiseless and sequestered calm, whereas Hardy “disrupts the idyll, and not just by introducing the sound and fury of an extreme plot … he is out to subvert his readers’ complacency.” (Note that “madding” means “frenzied” in this context.)

When the Title Comes First

Many authors have the title for their book ready before they start writing. In the words of Jhumpa Lahiri, “Interpreter of Maladies is the title of one of the stories in the book of the same name. And the phrase itself was something I thought of before I even wrote that story.” Beloved Irish author Frank McCourt is supposed to have said – perhaps about his memoir Angela’s Ashes (1996; film version 1999), “I think I settled on the title before I ever wrote the book.”

To close on a lighter note, here’s a quote from everyone’s favorite humor writer, Dave Barry: “It isn’t easy, coming up with book titles. A lot of the really good ones are taken. Thin Thighs in 30 Days, for example. Also, The Bible.”

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