All-Time Best Titles

Choosing the perfect title for a book is an art form unto itself. Many readers assume that the choice is the author’s prerogative, but when you work in publishing you soon learn that the editorial staff and the publisher also have a strong—and sometimes definitive—hand in the decision-making process. That’s especially true when, like us, you work primarily with nonfiction books, which tend to carry subtitles (more words to juggle) and whose titles need to convey a set amount of information in a short space (less allowance for obliquity and ambiguity).

Many an Abbeville production meeting has been lengthened—and occasionally enlivened—by a debate over titles, and many of our titles have gone through three or more working permutations before the final version was selected. Most of the time, we think we and our authors make the right decision, and sometimes we even hit on a gem. It’s probably no coincidence that Armin Brott’s The Expectant Father is one of our bestselling books,  since Brott’s clever, gender-bending title (makes us think of LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness: “The king was pregnant”) is among the best in our catalog. We’re also proud of the rhythm and flow of our new children’s book title, Everett The Incredibly Helpful Helper. We think it’s fun to say aloud, and we hope kids and parents will agree. On the other hand, sometimes we make more questionable choices: the title of Whisk(e)y may be eye-catching, but it was decided on in 1997, just before Google (to say nothing of Whiskipedia) came along and made it impossible to find as a search result.

Just for fun, and to inspire fellow editors as well as ourselves, we’ve put together a brief list of exceptional titles from various genres. Some are compact and clever, others lyrical and evocative. Our secret favorite is probably the Robert Graves, with its perfect balance of sentimentality and cynicism. We don’t pretend to like all of these works, or even to have read all of them; we are including them on the basis of title alone. Feel free to tell us your own favorites in the Comments section!

Fiction/Poetry/Plays

  • Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, and the other “name titles”
  • Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”
  • Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish
  • Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terebithia
  • Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (biggest-ever gap between quality of title and quality of book)
  • Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten
  • Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
  • Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
  • Edward Lear, Complete Nonsense (title of collected poems)

Nonfiction/Essays/Journalism

  • George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys”
  • Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That
  • Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”
  • Peter Bowler, The Superior Person’s Book of Words
  • Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Websites

14 Comments

Filed under Books and Publishing

14 responses to “All-Time Best Titles

  1. that’s what we love about you guys: your humility!

  2. “The Wandering Jew” by Stefan Heym

  3. Haha, thanks, Sara…you make us blush a bit at our brazen self-promotion. “A Different Stripe” also has a great title, as do many of the sites linked to on our sidebar: About Last Night, Editrix, Emdashes, Bookninja…we could go on, but we’d like to hear other readers chime in, too…

  4. Sharon

    “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl

  5. Jenny

    Sideways Stories from Wayside School!!!

  6. Apparently, R.L. Stine wouldn’t write a book until he came up with a worthy title. Whether you’re a Stein fan or not, “Say Cheese and Die” is pretty amazing.

  7. The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

    Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

    The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

    (and of course The Abbeville Manual of Style!)

  8. Another Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

    Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    Alex Haley: Roots

    Harlan Ellison: The City on the Edge of Forever

  9. Oh, and Ray Bradbury: All Summer in a Day

    Alan Dean Foster: For Love of Mother-Not

  10. Pingback: Great Book Titles - what your favorite? | Bookshop Blog

  11. Kaitlin

    I can’t believe you forgot the best one:
    To Kill a Mockingbird

    I also like Cry, the Beloved Country

  12. Pingback: BAKER STREET · Titles in Translation

  13. How about Tender is the Night, Look Homeward, Angel (yes, I realize that’s taken from a poem, but still…), and From Here to Eternity?

  14. Corey

    You forgot “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, “Wuthering Heights” and “Great Expectations”. Great choices though, very entertaining.

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