When looking to write a book, of all the problems and headaches involved, none is more pronounced than finding a great title. When I wrote my book on the life and work of Lao She, I should have left his name off the title. No one can pronounce it and the rest of the title would have caught the eye of the buyer better. China’s Master Storyteller was all I needed.
Another problem is that all the best titles have been used. Of the billions of books, whether written on clay tablets, papyrus or paper, in thousands of languages, there are no great book titles left. This includes the thousands of languages, down through the ages, with great titles, many lost, but they once existed. I would not want to steal even a Sanskrit title.
After writing magazine articles for years and newspaper opinion pieces and a few books that never made anybody’s best-seller list, I wanted to try again. But not until I could find a good unused title.
I saw an ad for a book whose title would be right for my musings on the Bible’s Holy Land. Aaron David Miller beat me to the punch with his book, The Much Too Promised Land. Even his sub-title, America’s Elusive Search For Arab-Israeli Peace, would be good enough for me. I would have to rearrange some words because I’m writing about the Holy Promised Land as it was when flowing with milk and honey.
Something like A Pilgrim’s Elusive Search for Truth in Israel’s History might be good, but it’s too long. A long title demands a longer book than I have in mind. (I’m only writing on what is between Genesis and Revelation.)
Teaching a Hippo to Dance, as far as I know, has not been used as a book title. There are several problems with this title. I went to my high school prom, but no one dared stumble with me and my non-nibble feet. And I have not been tempted in public since then. Another problem is dancing hippos are rare in the streets of Jerusalem, and have little to do with my book’s theme once we get past Noah and the Great Flood.
Tried by War looked to be a good title since the Old Testament is filled with war. And every side of those wars was trying. The first killing resulted from different opinions of worshipping God, and it has only gotten worse throughout the ages, right up to this enlightened 21st century.
Tried by War stuck me as a possible book title. Then I noticed that Penguin published James M. McPherson’s Tried by War. Jay Winik in the Boston Globe said this book is destined to become a classic. Wow, I almost wrote a classic.
The Gods That Failed, by Elliot and Atkinson, looked good. Their book is all about people’s unfortunate faith in money markets and how we got into this economic mess. My book would be about how Israel’s God was victorious against Baal, Astherah, Artemis, the gods of Moab, Egypt and Beelzebub. The wicked gods of Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t know what hit them.
When I saw The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley, I remembered all the people that thought the Bible was dull and dead. (With daily doses of Bible reading, church members would know this is not true.) That was when I had the title I needed. Just call it The Book of Dead Prophets. I could go a long way with all the stories in the Old Testament book of Hezekiah.
The fifth-century Greek playwright Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound (not a bad title) wrote, “Time, as he grows old, teaches many lessons.” Time is now teaching me to move on beyond book titles and get the book written. Time teaches many lessons, but it never slows down for any of us “writers.”
Britt Towery was the founder-pastor of the First Baptist Church in San Manuel, Ariz., and Pingtung BC Taiwan. He has also been international guest professor at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Asian studies director Baylor University. He blogs at Along the Way.