The first book on my reading list this summer was Imbeciles. I was defensive about this. People would ask me what I was reading, and I would say, “Imbeciles, a book about the historic 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. In the Supreme Court’s ruling, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, ‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough.’ Hence the title.”
In other words, I gave brief historical discourses in order to assure people that although I was reading a book called Imbeciles, it wasn’t what it sounded like.
Book titles are like book covers in that everyone would say you shouldn’t judge by them, but everybody does. There are titles that evoke a strong, instinctive reaction in the prospective reader, a reaction best summed up by the words, “Ah, no.” There are titles that are too pretentious, titles that are too long, titles that try too hard, titles that make you laugh for exactly the wrong reason. Most of all, there are titles that are almost overwhelmingly blah.
When book titles fail, it’s usually by being bland or silly. Keep in mind, though, that what makes titles bland or silly can be very subjective, varying on individuals’ associations, frame of mind, and reading preferences. Fiction genres tend to develop their own distinctive style of titles, which are then in perennial danger of being found ridiculous by rival-genre readers. If you think cozy mystery titles like Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder are too cute, and romance titles like Prairie Princess are too much, you should ask mystery and romance readers what they think of sci-ti titles like Synthetic Men of Mars. Or even The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge.
Some book titles make a virtue of being bland. This is unusual, and found mainly in very serious, and very long, history books. You will notice that people who have somehow gained status as real historians title their biographies very straightforwardly, with names like Eisenhower and Alexander Hamilton: A Life and (when they’re feeling feisty) John Tyler: A Presidency Reconsidered. Journalists, by contrast, have to come up with actual titles when they write biographies. Perhaps it’s some kind of union rule.
More commonly, book titles try to make a virtue of being silly. This easily goes wrong, especially because of those varying associations and frames of mind. My favorite example of this is On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, by Andrew Peterson. When I first heard of this novel, obviously named by the Department of Redundancy Dept., I decided to take a pass. Later I picked it up, but only because I’d been given a copy of the sequel and I’d already learned the downside of reading a fantasy series out of order.
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness is the first book of the Wingfeather Saga, which is now one of my favorite book series. It was the later books that really secured it that place, but if I had gone purely by the judgment I formed based on the title, I would never have begun the series.
What about you? Have you ever been misled by a book’s title? What are the worst book titles you’ve encountered, and did the books live up to them?