By any other name; Talking about titles

Self-deprecation is important. It’s especially important in the book business. There’s a funny website making its way around the literary blogs, Better Book Titles (http://betterbooktitles.com/). The idea is simple, Dan Wilbur is gonna change the titles of some of our favorite books so that we can tell what the book is really about by the title alone. Great! Here is a list of my favorites:

  • Mrs. Dalloway – A Quaint, Midafternoon Panic Attack
  • Infinite Jest – Too Long
  • Ulysses – One Long Sentence About Handjobs

Hilarious, thanks Dan. It got me thinking about the books from this year that I’ve loved, and how many of them have titles that could have been simpler. Can we blame our good friend Raymond Carver for some of these long winded, sentence length titles? I think so, but at some point these contemporary authors need to realize that they’ll never be Carver, and copying his title style won’t get them any closer. Let me reiterate, I like these books I’m about to mention, I just wish they’d been given better titles.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is my favorite book from 2010. It’s experimental and grounded, takes chances but isn’t pretentious. It’s about characters, following them through different stages of life without those silly connectors that many writers feel they need. If someone is young and wild, running away, being sexually reckless, it doesn’t mean that they won’t become a competent assistant for a major music producer, and it doesn’t mean she can’t be an unrepentant kleptomaniac and then become an amazing mother of a remarkable child with disabilities. We can accept that people change and live many lives, we don’t need the linear timeline and reasons for the changes, there’s enough there to digest with just recognizing that life is dynamic.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is being called ‘quirky’. If that means odd but cute, funny yet misshapen, light yet tragic, up, down, and disjointed, then yes it’s ‘quirky’. I prefer to call it a teenager, because being a teenager means being all of those things. I should also add brilliant. Rose Edelstein is a teenager who has a gift, when she eats, she can feel the emotions of the person who made the food. Just think about that for a minute. Rose, a typical teenager in every other way, can’t even figure out her own feelings about boys, her brother, her school, or her place, but now she’s burdened with the knowledge that her mother, who seems perfectly happy, is actually dying inside. Bender’s incredible premise is enhanced by her subtle, perfect prose. You’re gonna fall in love with Rose.

We judge books by their covers, and we should be judging books by their spines, but if you judge these books by their titles, you’ll miss out on some wonderful writing.

–Brian Contine

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