The Fascinating Stories Behind Classic Book Titles


A book title can make a big difference. After all, as much as our mothers warned us against it, as humans we can never seem to help ourselves from judging books by their covers. And some book titles — whether we’ve read the attendant books or not — are just burned into our brains, ushered in by the collective consciousness. But how did they come to be? After the jump, a few of the fascinating stories behind the titles of classic books, sprung from poems, paintings, and saloon bathroom stalls. Hey, inspiration can come from anywhere.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee

Edward Albee found the title of his most famous work in the bathroom of a saloon in Greenwich Village in 1954. He explains, “I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who’s afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller coined the term “catch-22” with his classic 1961 novel — but if things had gone otherwise, we might be saying “catch-18.” Heller had originally titled his novel Catch-18, but shortly before it was to be published, the much more famous novelist Leon Uris published a novel entitled Mila 18, and Heller’s editors thought it best to change course. “I was heartbroken,” Heller told Playboy in 1975. “I thought 18 was the only number.” As it turns out, 22 works much better for the novel, full of doubles upon doubles, and may have contributed to its long-term success.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain

The title of The Postman Always Rings Twice is sort of a puzzler — there is no postman, or even a mention of a postman, in Cain’s celebrated crime novel. But in the preface to Double Indemnity, the author explained that he had given the book to screenwriter Vincent Lawrence:

Lawrence liked it, and even gave me a title for it. We were talking one day, about the time he had mailed a play, his first, to a producer. Then, he said, “I almost went nuts. I’d sit and watch for the postman, and then I’d think, ‘You got to cut this out,’ and then when I left the window I’d be listening for his ring. How I’d know it was the postman was that he’d always ring twice. He went on with more of the harrowing tale, but I cut in on him suddenly. I said: ‘Vincent, I think you’ve given me a title for that book.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ ‘Say, he rang twice for Chambers, didn’t he?’ ‘That’s the idea.’ ‘And on that second ring, Chambers had to answer, didn’t he? Couldn’t hide out in the backyard any more.’ ‘His number was up, I’d say.’ ‘I like it.’ ‘Then, that’s it.’

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

Ford wanted to call his 1915 novel — set and written before WWI — The Saddest Story, but his editors thought that the title was too dreary for wartime. They asked for an alternative, and Ford wrote back, dripping with sarcasm: “Why not call the book A Roaring Joke? Or call it anything you like, or perhaps it would be better to call it A Good Soldier — that might do.” To his horror, they took him up on it.

Jaws, Peter Benchley

According to Benchley, “Jaws was the last, desperate compromise between me and my editor some twenty minutes before the book had to go to press. I had fiddled with a hundred alternatives, more or less: Great White, The Shark, The Jaws of Death, a few Françoise Sagan rip-offs, like A Silence in the Water; and a few helpful suggestions from my father, to wit: What’s That Noshin’ on My Laig? At last, my editor and I agreed that we didn’t like any of the suggested titles, and in fact, the only word we liked in any permutation was ‘jaws.’ I recall saying something to the effect of, ‘Screw it, then, let’s call it Jaws,’ and my editor saying something like, ‘Okay, what the hell…’ My father didn’t like it; my agent didn’t like it; my wife didn’t like it; and I didn’t much like it. But the bottom line was, who cares? Nobody reads first novels anyway.”

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s working title for this slim novel was Something That Happened, which is actually sort of brilliant, if grim. But he changed it after reading Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse,” which contains the now-famous line, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” (“The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry”).

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson got the name of his most famous book from a picture he painted while hanging out with his young stepson. In fact, he got the whole impetus for Treasure Island from the brush, writing:

On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’ I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe. The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins, the ponds and the ferries, perhaps the STANDING STONE or the DRUIDIC CIRCLE on the heath; here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or twopence-worth of imagination to understand with! No child but must remember laying his head in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and seeing it grow populous with fairy armies. Somewhat in this way, as I paused upon my map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

2666, Roberto Bolaño

There is no reference to this number in the book, and no explanation from Bolaño about its significance, so his true meaning may go forever unknown. However, the speculation might be even more fascinating than any solid answer. As critic Henry Hitchings wrote, “The novel’s cryptic title is one of its many grim jokes; there is no reference to this figure in its 900 pages. However, in another of his novels, Amulet, a road in Mexico City is identified as looking like ‘a cemetery in the year 2666′. Furthermore, in the novel, The Savage Detectives, there exists the line: ‘And Cesárea said something about days to come… and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something.’ Why this particular date? Perhaps it’s because the biblical exodus from Egypt, a vital moment of spiritual redemption, was supposed to have taken place 2,666 years after the Creation.”