People often ask me what I’m reading and sometimes I forget. What’s the name of that book again? But then some book titles stick to my brain like a gecko clinging to a wall. They take root inside me and often the book itself proves to be just as unforgettable.
In brainstorming the title for my own debut novel, I turned to experts who advised that authors should keep titles short for a variety of reasons: Something short will be easier for people to remember. Fewer words will fit more neatly on the book jacket and not require a small, unreadable font. But like most advice, it depends.
My favorite title these days consists of eight words. You read that right. Eight. Yet it sounds cool as hell when I say it aloud: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Zora Neale Hurston’s story collection centers on love and migration. The rhythm and flow of that title hits my ear just right. Genevieve West, who wrote the book’s introduction, says there are many ways to understand the title, one being that it refers to the ability of black people to endure and overcome challenges, or as the old folks say “make a way out of no-way.”
Then there are the one-word wonders that pack a world of meaning in an astonishing economy of letters. I devoured Heavy, the memoir by Kiese Laymon. In one small word, he interrogates so many aspects of a heavy life: blackness, body weight, secrets and lies, America’s sins, and the many ways we hurt others and ourselves. In her runaway bestseller Becoming, Michelle Obama uses the title of her memoir to explore how our personal growth has no finite destination; instead, we’re always learning and evolving. The title sparked a mini-movement, too. Using the hashtag #IamBecoming, readers took to Twitter to share their personal journeys of becoming.
The scope and breadth of a book title can intimidate us as the authors of the work. How expansive can it be? Am I being audacious in my choice of a title? When I studied novel writing with Tayari Jones at Tin House, she discussed the difficulty she had in choosing the title of her latest novel. In an offhand remark to her editor, she suggested An American Marriage but quickly dismissed the idea because it sounded like a book about navel-gazing white people in Connecticut, not a novel about a black couple grappling with the fallout of wrongful incarceration. It was her mentor, Pearl Cleage, who reminded her that black people are indeed American and that the prison system responsible for upending her protagonist’s life is a uniquely American institution.
Some of the best book titles turn popular sayings on their head and imbue them with new, unexpected meaning. [Read more…]