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How to Judge A Book By Its Title

January 27, 2014
This might be one of the worst book covers ever, but the title is in one of the most popular categories.

This might be one of the worst book covers ever, but the title follows one of the most common word patterns used in book titles.

Even though I’m a visual person (meaning I like pretty pictures and read comic books), I’ve never looked closely at book covers.  Unless the cover illustration is of a hot chick with cleavage, my eyes seem to naturally search for the title and author.  To me, a book cover is not a factor when I choose a book.  The cover is almost always designed by an illustrator who is not the author.  In fact, I’d bet there is no relationship between the quality of a book cover and the quality of the writing inside the book.

But the title is different.  The author almost always comes up with his (or her) own title.  If the title is stupid or pretentious, chances are that the book will be stupid or pretentious.  If the book title is clever or intriguing, maybe the book itself will be clever or intriguing.  It doesn’t always work out that way.  But I’d rather judge a book by its title than by its cover.

This year I’m making an effort to read more books as they come out so that I can form my own opinions before reviewers can spoil the books for me.  I find that since I can’t see the book covers very well on my phone (my new phone is great, but covers are small), the biggest determining outside factor for me is the title.

All of the books below have come out in the last few weeks, and almost every title follows one of six commonly used title patterns:

 

1.  NOUN-PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson

The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

 

2.  PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE ONLY (maybe with lots of adjectives)

On Such a Full Sea by Chang Rae Lee

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

In the Blood by Lisa Unger

 

3.  THE or A plus NOUN (with maybe an adjective in the middle)

The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart

The Kept by James Scott

The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway

A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan Philipp Sendker

The Ascendant by Drew Chapman

The Execution by Dick Wolf

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus- The “the/a” is implied.

 

4.  PROPER NOUN

Bella Cora by Phillip Margulies

Worthy Brown’s Daughter by Phillip Margolin

Mercy Snow by Tiffany Baker- Yes, Mercy Snow is a character’s name.  I checked.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

 

5.  ONE WORD

Perfect by Rachel Joyce

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates- This title also fits the PROPER NOUN category

Red-1, 2, 3 by John Katzenbach- Do numbers count as words?

 

6.  NOUN-VERB (with something before or after)

The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton- I don’t trust a book with a title that’s a complete sentence.

Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll

Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

You Disappear by Christian Jungerson

++

The only 2014 book I’ve found that doesn’t seem to fit any of the six categories is Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow.  I almost said that the “the” or “a” is implied and put it in either Category #3 or #4. but I need to think about that.  Maybe it’s the rare title exception.

++

Three books from 2014 that I’ve started reading are The Kept, The Ascendant, and Foreign Gods, Inc.  I guess I like short titles.  The category that I’m least likely to read is the NOUN-PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE.  To me, it seems overdone and overdramatic (but maybe the books are also overdramatic).  I guess I don’t like titles with long prepositional phrases either.  There’s no way I’ll read Under the Wide and Starry Sky or On Such a Full Sea, but I’ve started reading In the Blood.  The short prepositional phrase is just fine with me.

I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its title, but what else are we readers supposed to do?  Reviews are rigged.  Covers aren’t illustrated by the author and aren’t an indication of the quality of a book.  Popular authors get stale after a few books.  There are too many books out there to give each one a fair chance, so if I have to choose one way to decide which books to sample/read and which ones to ignore, I’ll choose to judge a book by its title.

14 Comments
  1. I love this article, and this entire blog. It’s like I’m speaking to a mirror – just brilliant.

  2. Choosing a title is a very challenging task. Glad to hear someone takes notice!

  3. Choosing a title is one of the most difficult things for any writer, which is why I have no problem judging books by their title. You’re right about the cover- sometimes the awful cover image just isn’t the writer’s fault.

  4. Titles are the last thing a writer considers and often the hardest decision one has to make.

  5. Choosing a book title is just as important as choosing a personal blog title! I have started and deleted numerous blogs, changed their titles, several times, etc., before I came up with one that fits MY personality, much the same way a book title needs to match the book content.

  6. Last year I bought ‘Low Down Death Right Easy’ by J David Osborne solely for the title. I have no clue what it is about…..

    • Is that good if a reader can’t tell what the book is about from the title? That could go either way. Did you find out what it was about after you read it? I kind of like the title because it doesn’t fit any of the 6 word patterns.

      • Unsurprisingly I haven’t read it yet! It’s one of the 746 (or 739 now!) yet to be read. I’m well aware that it could go either way, I’m hoping it will be as intriguing as the title.

  7. I’ll bet you could fill a pretty good library just with books whose titles came from the Bible or Shakespeare. Thanks for an interesting post.

  8. Says the man whose book is titled Having a Few and Getting Some (verb, noun, conjunction, verb, noun) :) – btw – Is that book as male-centric as it sounds?

    • That’s true, there should probably be a category for conjunctions. I don’t think the book is TOO male-centric. It’s just a bunch of outlandish stories I used to tell in my early 20s just to see if people would believe me (and to get their attention because I’m a quiet guy). I was surprised that almost everybody believed me.

  9. I never thought about it, but I place a huge amount of importance on title and never questioned it too because there’s no idiom about title-judging. It’s rare a blog can make me have a thought I’ve never had before. Bravo.

  10. Titles can put you right off a book. Our school library had a book called “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome with a very (to me) off-putting cover with lots of little pictures that looked like children’s drawings of scenes from the story.
    I didn’t read it till I was about 20 and feel I missed out. If only they’d called it something like “Adventure in the Lakes” I’d have snapped it up!

  11. Interestingly put!

    Have you tried reading plays? Usually, they come with no pictures on the cover to represent any form of interest. You just have to dig in and hope that the playwright has given you something magical to read.

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