After 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.