Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Good Titles



I’ve been reading The Secret Life of Bees. It’s kind of a rush job since the movie is coming out soon, and you know how I am about books and movies (See my first blog “What are you reading?”). So far I’ve enjoyed it. I spent a good part of Sunday reading it. Very relaxing.

Even though I’ve just recently picked it up, I’d been considering reading the book for some time, before I knew there was going to be a movie. It was getting good exposure at the bookstores, was on the bestseller lists, and it seemed to have staying power, but I always hesitated when I had the chance to buy it. Why? Probably for those very reasons I just mentioned. Not everything that’s popular is worth your time, and all I knew about the book was that it was popular, and therefore, I didn’t have enough reasons to invest in it.

Maybe this is why I so frequently wait for books to be made into movies: movie trailers are so convenient. They can tell you just enough about a story in a couple of minutes. It reminds me of what Ouisa says in Steel Magnolias: “I don’t read books because if they’re any good, they’ll make them into a mini-series!” Except in my case it prompts me to read more books instead of ignore them.

But The Secret Life of Bees had two things going for it besides its popularity that had caught my attention long before now: its cover and its title. Practically everyone is familiar with the saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ so you can probably understand why the cover still didn’t convince me to buy it. A pretty cover doesn't necessarily make a good book. Which leaves me with the title.

I love a good title. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good one. It’s not only interesting, but it has more meaning once you know the story. Frank Capra movies have some good ones. It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are so simple and unpretentious that you’d almost overlook them, yet they are deeply significant. Like his movies. One title that always gets me thinking is Carousel, from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. ‘Carousel’ is such a happy image, and yet the story is bittersweet, arguably the most serious of their works. And it wasn’t the original title of the source material either, so I always wonder why they chose that title. And then there’s Oklahoma!, which is probably Carousel’s polar opposite, brimming with optimism. I think the exclamation point makes all the difference. And Fiddler on the Roof is intriguing for its imagery alone.

Some book titles I like are A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, A Series of Unfortunate Events (I know--it's a book series title, but what the heck?), Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, The Once and Future King, and The Devil Wears Prada (Never read the book, but I'll admit it's a strong title. I did see the movie, and it was fun, but I'm content to leave it at that.). A short story title I really like is A Good Man is Hard to Find. The title fits, and yet at the same time, the story is definitely not what you'd expect. And of course, The Secret Life of Bees.

So if you're trying to pick out a book, stick with book titles, if nothing else. Book covers can change, but titles don't. Somehow I always knew that I should have picked up The Secret Life of Bees a lot sooner than I did because the title stuck with me. Movie trailers may tell you a story in a few minutes, but a book title--a good one--will tell you the story in a few words.

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