on titles


Adam has made up a game. He comes up to me and in a confiding whisper he says, Dad, do you know what the title of my next book is going to be? So I guess, sometimes. I say: the toothpaste vampire. Or I say, The monster that ate the donuts. Then Adam will tell me. The books Adam is going to write are all scary stories. Horror stories. He is in the throes of a love affair with being scared; and especially, being scared by R.L. Stine. The goosebumps series, the innumerable spin-offs – Adam just loves them. J’adore R.L. Stine, he’ll say. The titles he comes up with are Stine-esque, if not stolen outright from the master. Like: The Werewolf of the Swamp. Sometimes I’ll remind him that the title is already taken.
Yet Adam isn’t totally wrong. Titles exist in a strange no-man’s land in IP law. Although trademark claims are made for businesses (some Chicago restaurant was in the news recently for, absurdly, sending threatening letters to all organizations using the word “Aloha”, which the restaurant claims as trademarked), there seems to be a lot of elbow room in the title field. You can look up a popular title-ish word – say, Possession – and you will find half a dozen novels with that title. On the other hand, you will only probably find one Mansfield Park, or Mrs. Dalloway. It is hard to tell, in this labyrinth of the claimed and the unclaimed, what the rules are.
Even  though I do not remember talking about titles with Adam, his fascination with titles mirrors my own. I am a title dreamer. I love to jot down potential titles for books or articles, and I can almost see the future spirits of those books or articles flock around (spirit, is this a book that may be, or that must be?). There is a poetry of the title – and, of course, where there is poetry, there is mostly bad poetry. Many, many bestselling books bear embarrassing title names, adducing blue, infinitely, passion, love like a barker with Tourette’s syndrome (hey, is that the title of a future detective novel?).  These title suffer from Hallmarkitis, and even when they get good reviews, it takes a certain pause before one can pick them up.
But whose titles are these? We think of the title and the book as signed by the same maker. In fact, titles are where agents and publishers like to play. They are always suggesting that titles be changed, because they have a belief in what is marketable that is quite odd when you think that they are always calling for something totally original – as long as it is like everything else. The vulgar version of the death of the author has some strong evidence when it comes to titles.
Certain titles, though, seemed signed by the author. Mrs. Dalloway. Sense and Sensibility. The Great Gatsby – okay, I included the last one as a ringer, because this was not Fitzgerald’s first pick for the title. But he was persuaded away from Trimalchio in West Egg, thank God. Some titles give off an odd and enigmatic light – they are the answer to a riddle that is posed by the book. Supremely, this is the case with Ulysses. Joyce doesn’t tell you, hey, this book translates the Odyssey in some ways to a June day in Dublin. But the title tells you something is up. I remember the Modern Library classic, with that huge U – that stately, plump U – which I loved, and which might have kicked off my love of titles.

The medievals derived title from Titan, according to Thomas C. Stillinger: “According to Servius the term tutulus (title) comes from Titan, that is, the sun, either by a process of diminishing or by comparison. It is said to come through diminution because the lifht of that work is small in relation to the whole sun; by comparison [because] just as the rising sun gives light to the whole world, so the title illuminates the work that follows.” Thus, Nietzsche’s Morgenrote is a sort of entitled title, and the rays illuminate the whole disparate system of the numbered. But does every book deserve to be a planet upon which a sun, or title, rises? Are titles necessary? Should this little scrawl have one?

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