The Number of Syllables in a Novel’s Title: How Vital?

Blue MoonAfter reading Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel last week, I thought about how page-turning that series is and how it reflects our times. Heck, there’s an amazing/harrowing “fake news” reference near the end of that recent book, which chronicles Reacher’s battle against rival mobs that ruthlessly control a city.

I also thought about the novel’s title — Blue Moon — and how there’s something very punchy about titles with two syllables, even though they can’t always convey much info. Five of the more than 20 other Reacher books also have two-syllable titles, as do…Jane Eyre! Kindred! Sula! White Teeth! Nana! Suttree! White Fang! Shogun! Ragtime! The Firm! (By Charlotte Bronte, Octavia E. Butler, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Emile Zola, Cormac McCarthy, Jack London, James Clavell, E.L. Doctorow, and John Grisham, respectively.)

Yes, short titles sometimes are the main character’s name, which makes a lot of sense for certain novels.

Anyway, I decided after finishing Blue Moon to go through the list of novels I’ve read or reread during the past 20 years (yes, I do keep a list 🙂 ) to see how many had titles with one syllable, two syllables, three syllables, etc. Was there one syllabic category significantly more popular than the others?

Of course, this laborious exercise was totally unscientific and perhaps meaningless, but the memorability of a title — which can be partly affected by its number of syllables — might mean a little something.

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with one-syllable titles: 5. Among them: Rose (Martin Cruz Smith) and March (Geraldine Brooks).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with two-syllable titles: 82. Among them: See my second paragraph.

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with three-syllable titles: 139. Among them: Middlemarch (George Eliot), Persuasion (Jane Austen), Moby-Dick (Herman Melville), Empire Falls (Richard Russo), The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), The Last Man (Mary Shelley), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Huntress (Kate Quinn), Outlander (Diane Gabaldon), Still Alice (Lisa Genova), The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler), Caravans (James Michener), and History (Elsa Morante).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with four-syllable titles: 158. Among them: The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty), The Shell Seekers (Rosamunde Pilcher), So Much for That (Lionel Shriver), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen), Light in August (William Faulkner), Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev), and A Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with five-syllable titles: 148. Among them: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham), Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery), The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), Rubyfruit Jungle (Rita Mae Brown), The Captain’s Daughter (Alexander Pushkin), The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton), From a Buick 8 (Stephen King), and One for the Money (Janet Evanovich).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with six-syllable titles: 71. Among them: Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton), Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston), Marjorie Morningstar (Herman Wouk), A Is for Alibi (Sue Grafton), and Devil in a Blue Dress (Walter Mosley).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with seven-syllable titles: 51. Among them: The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James), The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte), The Heart of Midlothian (Sir Walter Scott), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), Go Tell It On the Mountain (James Baldwin), The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler), and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with eight-syllable titles: 32. Among them: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque), The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov), In the Time of the Butterflies (Julia Alvarez), The Temple of My Familiar (Alice Walker), Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Jorge Amado), and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with nine-syllable titles: 11. Among them: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain) and A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 10-syllable titles: 10. Among them: The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (Dorothy Gilman) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (Douglas Adams).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 11-syllable titles: 2. Among them: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (Charles Dickens).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 12-syllable titles: 5. Among them: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 13-syllable titles: 2. Among them: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 14-syllable titles: 1. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (Edgar Allan Poe).

Some conclusions: Four-, five-, and three-syllable titles were the most plentiful. I suppose titles of those lengths are short enough to be punchy but long enough to convey a decent amount of information and/or “turn a phrase.”

Also, while a good title of course helps, especially in cases where we don’t initially know an author’s work, it’s what’s in the novel that counts the most! Heck, when we know and love an author’s work, the title of their next book could be almost anything. 🙂

How many syllables do the titles of your favorite novels have? Does the number of syllables in a book title matter to you? Anything else you’d like to say about this weird topic? 🙂

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which is partly about an awful presidential endorsement — is here.

More Than Zero Interest in Zero-Year Novels

PossessionIt’s anniversary time again! With a month-plus of 2020 “in the books,” I’d like to mention some of my favorite (not necessarily the best) novels that were published in 1970, 1920, 1870, and various other years ending in that big ol’ round number of zero. And then you can tell me some of your favorites.

Let’s go chronologically backwards, shall we?

I already mentioned several novels published in 2010 and 2000 when I discussed my 2010-2019 faves last September in this post and my 2000-2009 faves a week later in this post, so I won’t repeat my brief summaries of those books here. Included were the 2010-released So Much for That by Lionel Shriver, 61 Hours by Lee Child, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith; and the 2000-released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.

Anyway, on to (back to) 1990! My favorite novel of that year, and one of my top-ten novels of any time, is A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Her book is about two 20th-century academics researching the possible romance between two fictional 19th-century poets, and it’s much more compelling than that description sounds. There’s also Walter Mosley’s really good Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of his many novels starring detective Easy Rawlins; and Darryl Brock’s page-turner If I Never Get Back, one of my favorite time-travel works and one of my favorite baseball-themed works. Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour (its title is kind of self-explanatory) is also a pretty darn good 1990 read, albeit a bit overlong.

Published in 1980? Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a gripping 14th-century murder mystery set in an Italian monastery; John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously released A Confederacy of Dunces, which is about as funny and quirky as a novel can be; and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, a haunting work about three generations of women.

My favorite 1970 novel — 50 years ago — is Jack Finney’s time-travel tour de force Time and Again, which has the bonus of being illustrated with great 19th-century photos of New York City.

The best 1960 novel is a no-brainer: Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill a Mockingbird, which deserves all its renown and sales. I’m also a fan of Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey, about two dogs and a cat trying to find their way home across 300 miles of Canadian wilderness.

A decade earlier, 1950 had high-profile titles such as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Things were even more impressive in 1940 with Richard Wright’s Native Son (a searing look at race), Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (the Spanish Civil War novel that’s my favorite Hemingway work), and Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (a stunning debut for an author in her early 20s).

Among the excellent novels published in 1930? William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

My two 1920-released favorites from a century ago are Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer) and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (that author’s sixth novel but his first bestseller).

Of novels published in 1910, I particularly like Colette’s The Vagabond. And, for 1900, there’s Colette’s Claudine at School, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The 19th century was graced with Emile Zola’s The Beast in Man, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four (all released in 1890); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Henry James’ Washington Square, and Zola’s Nana (1880); Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870); George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860); Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s White-Jacket, and Alexandre Dumas’ The Black Tulip (1850); and Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pathfinder (1840).

I think I’ll stop there.

Your favorite novels published in a year ending with zero? (Not zero sales for those authors. 🙂 )

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about an imaginary run for mayor of my town — is here.

It’s a Fact That Rush’s Lyricist Loved Fiction

Neil PeartBack in 2014, I wrote a blog post about songs with literary references — mentioning tunes such as Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” (which contained lines about The Lord of the Rings), Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (The Grapes of Wrath), Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), 10,000 Maniacs’ “Hey Jack Kerouac,” Rosanne Cash’s “The Summer I Read Colette,” etc.

Today, after the death last month of Rush’s great drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, I’d like to focus on some of the lit-influenced songs he wrote for that renowned Canadian band. Few rock groups referenced fictional works more than Rush did, and the main reason is that Peart was a voracious reader — as well as an author of seven books himself. “The Professor,” as he was called, even worked with science-fiction author Kevin J. Anderson on a novelization of Rush’s last album, Clockwork Angels (2012), a “concept” record that was astoundingly good for a rock band that had been together 38 years at that point. For many bands, the creative well has long run dry after several decades (“ahem,” I’m talking about you, The Rolling Stones…).

Clockwork Angels‘ final track — the gorgeous, heartbreaking “The Garden” — includes the phrase “infinite jest” from the title of the David Foster Wallace novel, from the phrase in Hamlet, or both.

Hamlet is also represented with “to sleep, perchance to dream” being among the subtitles of Rush’s colossal instrumental “La Villa Strangiato.”

And Peart references Shakespeare’s iconic “all the world’s a stage” line from As You Like It in one of Rush’s most famous songs: “Limelight,” about how an introvert (Peart) reacts to being a celebrity.

Just as famous, if not more so, is Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” — about a modern version of Mark Twain’s renowned character.

Sharing Side One with “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” on Rush’s classic 1981 Moving Pictures album is “Red Barchetta,” a car-related song inspired by Richard S. Foster’s short story “A Nice Morning Drive.”

With “the bell tolls for thee” line in “Losing It,” Peart referenced Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls — whose title came from a John Donne poem. And the title of Rush’s Grace Under Pressure album pays homage to the famous Hemingway quote.

Peart was influenced for a time in his younger years by Ayn Rand, which led to a Rush song (“Anthem”) named after a Rand novella. “The Professor” eventually left that philosophy behind; Peart and his two bandmates (vocalist/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, both of whom co-wrote the music that accompanied Peart’s lyrics) all turned out to be rather liberal, compassionate people — whereas the “selfishness is good” Rand is lionized by some nasty figures on America’s far right.

Though there are various other lit-influenced Rush songs, I’ll conclude with just one more: “Xanadu,” which I also mentioned in a post last month. That epic tune was inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan.”

Your favorite songs with literary references, whether by Rush or anyone else?

I realize I’m posting this piece during the Super Bowl, but…I…don’t…care. 🙂 (I hate the violence of football, the NFL’s ultra-conservative owners, etc.) Also, my next blog post will appear on a Monday (February 10) rather than the usual Sunday (February 9).

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about an interim schools superintendent’s controversial remark on race — is here.