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Column: What’s in a name, or a title?

REPORTER FILE PHOTO Shelter Island's Black Cat Books.
REPORTER FILE PHOTO Shelter Island’s Black Cat Books.

Almost from the time I began reading books, I became intrigued by some of their titles. Yes, like millions of others, I was sternly warned at an early age not to judge a book by its cover. Nevertheless, if the title on a cover captured my fancy, that would whet my desire to read the book.

There are some titles I like for their provocative elegance. Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” comes quickly to mind, as does “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s landmark triumph in the genre of magical realism.

Others are fondly remembered for their wonderful quirkiness, such as Oliver Sacks’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat,” or Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” or George Carlin’s “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?”

But the titles I’ve treasured the most over the years are ones that connect to earlier works in our rich literary tradition. Call it pretentious, but all I can say in my defense is that I remain to this day an unrepentant English major. We all have our frailties.

A prime example from this category is William Faulkner’s celebrated novel, “The Sound and the Fury,” a chronicle of the Compson family, former Southern aristocrats who are struggling to cope with the dissolution of their fortune and reputation.

Their story is divided into four sections, each with a different narrator and point of view. The first section is related by Benjy Compson, who is impaired with a severe learning disability. In Faulkner’s milieu, he was considered an “idiot,” and so, in choosing his title, he reached back to Shakespeare and Macbeth’s lament that “Life’s but a walking shadow … a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

For the title of his other masterpiece — “Absalom, Absalom!” — Faulkner turned to the Old Testament. That novel deals with a wayward son’s rebellion against his powerful father who reigns over a vast plantation called Sutpen’s Hundred. The gothic tale of betrayal and murder mirrors the story of the Biblical Absalom, a son of King David who led a revolt against his father.

The Bible also served as a source for the title of Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” An underlying theme in that book is the contrast between human life, which is all too transitory, and the forces of nature, which are eternal.

To help drive that home, Hemingway provided an epigraph quoting the passage from Ecclesiastes that included the phrase he used for his title: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever … The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose…”

A decade later, when he wrote a novel about the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway took his cue from “No Man is an Island,” a 17th Century work by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. Here are the closing lines:
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Around the time that “For Whom The Bell Tolls” was published, John Steinbeck came out with his most famous novel. That poignant story about the tenant farmers who, driven to desperation in the Dust Bowl, migrate to California in search of jobs, land and a better life clearly has its own strong identity in our literary firmament.

Yet on many occasions when I see or hear the title of that book, I automatically think of the opening lines of the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

Here are some other examples in short takes:
— “Of Mice and Men:” A novella by Steinbeck about migrant ranch workers that took its title from a line in a poem by Robert Burns: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley” (Or as we say in modern parlance, go often askew.)
— “All The King’s Men:” The towering opus by Robert Penn Warren has often been hailed as the greatest American political novel of the 20th Century. That’s quite an honor for a book whose title comes from a nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty.
— “Slouching Towards Bethlehem:” For the title of her sterling collection of essays about life in America during the 1960s, Joan Didion turned to the closing lines of “The Second Coming,” everyone’s favorite William Butler Yeats poem: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
— “A Handful of Dust:” A book by Evelyn Waugh usually grouped with the early satires that established his reputation as the best comic novelist of his era. But this novel has dark undertones and its unexpected resolution is downright sinister. Waugh foreshadowed the shift in mood when he chose for his title a T.S. Eliot line from “The Wasteland:” “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

I could go on, and on … But enough. Even exercises in self-indulgence have their limits. But before leaving the subject, there’s one more thought I’d like to share with you.

I know from personal experience that publishers and editors urge authors to keep their titles short, preferably no more than three or four words. Long titles (they say) usually don’t work out very well.
Perhaps so, but one of my all-time favorite titles adorns the cover of a book by Robert Sherrill, and it rambles on for eleven words: “Military Justice Is To Justice as Military Music Is To Music.”

Whimsical, yes, but with a nice cutting edge.