Book titles as koans

Some book lovers are ensnared by the cover design. Me, I’m into titles. Catcher in the Rye, The Garden of Last Days, A Room Called Remember, Landscapes of the Night, God of Small Details, The Lost Slipper of the Soul. These are titles that catch my attention. Don’t you just love the words stringed beautifully together? So musically sounding, they should be pronounced “trippingly on the tongue” as Shakespeare advises in Hamlet.

I have turned into a title hunter. I buy second-hand magazines that review books even if only to scan the titles of books featured in them. Most of the time I can’t access the book for two main reasons: It costs too much and it’s not available in our local bookstore. So I just contemplate and ruminate on the title and what it seems to mean.

What’s in a title? A lot. The right title of a book or movie can bring in profits or doom prospects. As a writer, I spend a lot of time getting a title right for a piece of writing I have done.

But to me there is something more to titles than meets the eye. Over the years, my interest in titles has evolved into something more than their instant appeal or non-appeal. I now look for book titles for what they can conjure in terms of wisdom and significance about life, or about human nature, happiness, tragedy, and everything in between.

If Robert Fulghum can declare that he had learned it all in kindergarten, then I can say my personal life’s small treasury of reflections has been inspired by titles that I came across during my years of eclectic book scanning. If haikus can evoke insights in just 17 syllables, a good title of three to four words can inspire a resonant homily in me. A pithy book title can be likened to a koan, a short riddle used in Zen Buddhism to provoke enlightenment. At the least, I look at them as stimulative memes for living.

Let me share with you some of the titles in my collection. They have nothing to do with the contents of the books cited. They are not reviews or summaries of the books. In fact, I have not even read most of them. My interest is solely on the titles and the thoughts they engender in my mind.

‘A God in Ruins’

The title of this novel by English writer Kate Atkinson describes aptly what fanatic believers have done to our world in the belief that only their way is the right way. Their wars have brought so much ruin and destruction. Purportedly in the name of a God who in their holy books forbids them to kill, urges them to wage peace, and inspires them to respect and love one’s neighbor. This is the irony and paradox of this divine force they call God. The people believing in Him have made Him a God not only in ruins but a God of ruins and havoc.

‘A Festival of Insignificance’

Written by Milan Kundera, this book has a title that captures for me the ultimate unimportance of pursuit and acquisition of wealth, power as well as engagement in politics and petty preoccupations in life in general. Dust in the wind, all is just that. So much ado about nothing, which is the title of a Shakespearean comedy. Indeed the active life can seem like a festival full of noise and sound that ultimately mean nothing. Ostentatious on the outside, hollow in the inside.

‘You Can’t Take It With You’

This movie is based on the successful Broadway play by Moss Hart and to me it is the follow up of the same thematic note to the previous title I discussed. No matter how popular or wealthy or powerful you are in life, when you die you leave it all behind. Sometimes what you leave behind can even cause a lot of trouble, legally, financially, emotionally and so on.

‘Step Out of the Story’

Believe it or not that’s the title of a self-help book but it is an apt description of what we need to do in our lives. To detach from what we do, what we desire, what we are obsessed about, and what we are so angry about. Like a good writer or a good film editor, we need to reflect on the story of our individual unique lives from time to time and see where we are and if we are making any sense with the life-story we are making. We can always backtrack and develop the characters some more. But as to the actual ending, no one really knows. And perhaps you need to stop making yourself the star of your life story.

‘The Invention of Wings’

To me, the title is about self-reinvention or transformation. We are not born with wings to enable us to fly. We have to invent them through our struggles and hard efforts. It takes time and determination. Even when we have grown our wings, like a baby bird, we still need to learn how to fly. Sometimes, we may fall first in our exuberance but soon we learn to soar.

‘The Gods of Guilt’

Another book with God in it. I don’t know but it sparked thoughts about furies, those flying loathsome preying creatures from Greek mythology. They were sent by the gods to hound and haunt the consciences of human beings for committing acts of abomination such as murder, adultery, incest, and so on.  Today, contemporary society seems to have become indifferent or insensitive to “acts of abomination.” Or as someone said: Where is our sense of outrage? A teen is shot by policemen simply because of being suspected as a drug addict, a high-school student goes on a murderous rampage using guns he acquired so easily from the local gun store. We no longer feel any sense of collective guilt for doing anything about the culture of impunity. Where are the gods of guilt when we need them?

‘Every Day Is For The Thief’

Strange title but it reminds me of carpe diem. We need to snatch life in every moment, look for things of value and not waste effort in cheap possessions. Everyday presents something for us to steal and add to our treasure to enrich our inner life. It just lies there for us to take. But we need to remember not to waste time or lose the chance.

‘The Givenness Of Things’

Our parents, our family, our bloodline. They are all given not chosen. It is also a reminder that most of what we need is here. We must be content with what we have at the moment. Let us learn to make do with things that are available to us no matter how meager they seem to be. Many times they are more than enough. Let us be creative and inventive with things at our disposal. Just like cooking for someone who drops by unexpectedly. Take stock of ingredients you have and then make something out of it. Even in writing you start by crafting something out of your experiences. They are given, inside of you. Write how you cope with what life has given or done to you. That’s a good start for any fledgling writer.

‘Gone with the Mind’

This is a clever pun on a popular title of a book that became a great movie. A family relative can be said to be lost to us when his mind is no longer functioning at all. For all intents and purposes, he is gone although he sits beside us or in front of us. It can also speak of a life partner who is deeply focused on many other things, he completely becomes unmindful of the needs of the one beside him.

‘Blood Memory’

IN Tagalog we have a term: lukso ng dugo. It refers to an inexplicable feeling of excitement upon encountering a stranger and suddenly a sense of connection is awakened. Then later you find out it’s because he or she is a relative. You have blood ties. Does blood recognize and seek its own? Or more accurately, do like genes attract each other?

‘Faith, Doubt, Mystery: A Catholic Journey’ by James J. Tracy.

Every person of faith whether Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu who professes a belief in the divinity goes through these changes of the heart over time.

I have other book titles in my list but this will be enough for the moment. But I hope the few I have shared will encourage you to do the same. Yes, it’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, but a good title on the cover is sometimes meaningful enough for me even if the inside content might not be substantial.

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