It's possible that Philip Roth's bestselling, critically acclaimed novel of a young man's bawdy, outrageous, confessional monologue to a new psychiatrist might have won as many readers under the titles The Jewboy or Wacking Off, but it would have been a lot more embarrassing to read in public. And A Jewish Patient Begins his Analysis, which sounds more like a dull non-fiction manual, might not have made the best-seller list at all. These are the books that will change your life.
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen's beloved classic English marriage novel provides the original blueprint for every rom-com where the hero and heroine hate each other at first sight, only to realize what the audience knows from the beginning, that they were perfect for each other all along. Frankly, we doubt that Jane's working title, First Impressions, would have made the same, shall we say, first impression? These tips will help you recover from a bad first impression.
If Joseph Heller had called his absurdist satirical best-seller about crazy World War II bomber pilots Catch-11, would it have attracted half as many readers? Would the title have become a catchphrase for a paradoxical requirement that can never be fulfilled? Heller renamed his book to avoid any conflict with the heist novel Oceans Eleven, which came out at about same time, so we'll never know. (If you loved the movie Oceans Eleven, here are more movies that are better than the book on which they were based.)
Adolf Hitler's ranting, rambling, furiously anti-Semitic memoir did poorly on publication in 1925, though of course it would eventually go on to sell millions of copies worldwide and is still widely read. Mein Kampf means simply "My Struggle." Would it have done better under its full original title, Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice? Or is that too much of a spoiler? It's fascinating when CIA psychologists dig into the mysterious minds of dictators.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
No one did titles better than Carson McCullers, whose brilliant, twisted Southern Gothic novels include Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and The Member of the Wedding. Did she learn the art of writing catchy titles when her publisher Houghton, Mifflin, renamed this first one, originally called The Mute?
The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway's bittersweet tale of the Lost Generation is set at a festival in Spain, and there are many party scenes involved. But can you believe he wanted to call it Fiesta? Considering it's about disillusioned expats and World War I vets trying to drink away their sorrows while a bunch of bulls get selected for the bullfight ring, the irony is crushing. Maybe if he added Fiestaware in a merchandising tie-in? (These are the books you really should have read by now—and seeing the movie doesn't count.)
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age novel about rich, privileged Bright Young Things on Long Island, and the man who sought to reinvent himself as one of them has a kind of inevitability about it, from its simple yet satirical title to its wonderful conclusion about Gatsby's belief in "the green light" of the future. Would Do Trimalchio in West Egg, Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires, or The High-Bouncing Lover have seemed equally destined for the classics? Check out the literary classics that are overrated, and the alternatives that will have you turning pages all night.
Lord of the Flies
It's one of those titles that has become a catchphrase for a situation or a quality, in this case the savagery that emerges when a group of boys are shipwrecked on a desert island with no adults to keep them civilized. William Golding wanted to call it Strangers from Within, but not only does the current title refer to the rotting head of a pig posted to scare off enemies, it's also the literal translation of Beelzebub, one of Satan's names. It just doesn't get better than that.
Though it's now used as a synonym for vampire, Dracula was Bram Stoker's last-minute choice for his suave blood-sucking antihero, inspired by a sobriquet of the 15th-century Transylvanian prince better known as Vlad the Impaler. Count Wampyr just doesn't have the same delightfully creepy ring, and The Dead Un-Dead, the book's working title, is so lacking in poetry that Dracula probably would have flown into the writer's room as a bat to take his revenge. These scary vampire legends are actually true.
War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy came up with one of the most iconic titles ever for his spectacular saga about Russia's participation in the Napoleonic wars and its effect on a couple of dozen aristocrats with intertwined lives. This is a truly ambitious work, and its name prepares the reader for the novel's sweeping range of subject. But the original name, All's Well That Ends Well, may refer to the reader's relief at having finished Tolstoy's magnum opus, which weighs in at well over 1,000 pages.