Sunday, February 14, 2010

What’s in a Title?

One of the coolest things about working on my side of circ desk is all of the books that you come in contact with. And to break that down a bit, all of the titles that you read. Recently, I came across three titles that just jumped right out at me: Enslaved By Ducks, Mermaids in the Basement and At the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Now, let me be clear: I have not actually read any of these books, only the titles. And this lead me to wonder about what elements make for a good title? Here are a couple of ideas I’ve come up with.

One component is a juxtaposition of two words or a series of words that appear in contradiction. A good example is the first title: Enslaved By Ducks. As a rule I don’t lay in bed worrying about the state of New York being taken over by barnyard fowl. And even if I did, I don’t think ducks would be the first group of waterfowl I would be concerned about. Geese are much bigger, far more aggressive and anyone who has tried to walk barefoot across a field afterwards knows that even when gone there passage remains. Ducks, by contrast, are cute and friendly and like to be feed bread by children. It is difficult to imagine a flock of ducks actively conspiring to enchain mankind. And there lay the danger.

The second title Mermaids in the Basement provides almost the same strange coexistence of words. In addition, we also have the coupling of the fantastic with the mundane. When I think about my basement I think about the laundry. Or plumbing tools stacked next to snowshoes and all the other stuff I’ve stored down there because I have no other place to put it. In the Spring I sometimes think about the water that seeps in from the northwest corner. I don’t think about mythical creatures. This particular title also seems to have an ominous feel to it. Why would someone keep such strange and beautiful beings trapped in a dark and secluded place except for nefarious purposes?

My third title doesn’t present the reader with any direct questions, only with a series of subtle realizations. At the Corner of Bitter and Sweet pretty much lets the reader know what is going to happen once they start reading. This is a good example of how some of the best titles single the reader before they ever even crack the covers. By just reading the title the author has telegraphed the reader as to what they can expect. And, in this particular case, the author has already jump-started the reading process by immediately connecting with the reader. Never mind that these crossroads might not have a real physical location. The author knows that every reader has already experienced what it’s like to have found ourselves standing in the middle of this intersection.

As I said, I haven’t yet read any of these books, just the titles. But the authors, editors and publishers have completed their first, and most difficult, task in reaching a perspective reader: they got me to actually pick up the book. If you’ve come across a title that jumped out at you be sure to let me know.

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