If you've ever spotted the spine of a book with a title so irresistible you bought it blindly, then you know it's not always such a bad idea to judge a book by its cover. Of course, there are exceptions, but when an author captures the mood of a book with the few words that line the spine, you can bet that there will be more treats to feed your inner bookworm inside its pages. As much as we love the expansive concision of their glorious titles, the pages sprawling with inspiring, life-changing ideas, emotionally impactful prose, narrative experiments, and language that gives rise to goosebumps makes them prime candidates for a spot on your bookshelf.
They may be rare, but when you find them, they tend to make great conversation starters when toting them around on the go, keeping them on your desk, or displaying them at home.
Just consider the cheeky teaser of Love Is a Dog From Hell, the assonant intrigue of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, or the evocative hook of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. See? They're hard to put down even before you open them. We've broken it down into three sections, or chapters, if you will, opening with novels, moving into short stories, and finishing off with essay and poetry collections. Some are funny, some are moving, but all will grab you and never let you go. Keep scrolling to start curating your own reading list inspired by the best book titles around, and get a sense of the tone of each book to help you narrow it down (or at least figure out where to start).
Chapter One: Novels
What's in a Name: Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion features the best opening line since Moby Dick: "What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask." Didion employs tight, controlled language to convey the disturbing actions that unfold. It takes place in 1960s Hollywood and is told in first-person vignettes that will enthrall and haunt you. As a California native, Didion eloquently captures both the beauty and the danger of Southern California.
Tone Teaser: "I know what 'nothing' means, and keep on playing."
What's in a Name: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake sounds like a metaphor, but in this book, it's both allegorical and literal, as the protagonist, a young girl, eats feelings that aren't her own. With each bite she takes, she absorbs the feelings of whoever made it. So when she bites into a lemon cake baked by her mother, she discovers that under the cheer and love, there is a deep despair. Aimee Bender is true master when it comes to drawing us into the interior worlds of people and describing the most mundane things with such poignancy you could cry.
Tone Teaser: "We hit the sidewalk, and dropped hands. How I wished, right then, that the whole world was a street.
"I'd stopped waving to passengers in cars by then—I'd grown suspicious of people and all the complications of interior lives—so I sat and watched and rode and thought, and as soon as the bus doors opened, we all rolled out the door and split apart like billiard balls."
There are true things in this world only observed by a single set of eyes.
What's in a Name: What is a round of books with life-changing abilities without at least one William Faulkner shout-out? As I Lay Dying takes on a unique form, as it's first told from the perspective of a dead matriarch and then by living members of her family.
Tone Teaser: "How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-string: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls."
What's in a Name: The title spells out exactly what happens in the book, but just because we know the plot and the point of tension doesn't mean we can't be emotionally affected by the story and all the other things that stories do aside from the plot. This is one of those books that's written for teens but makes an impact on adults too.
Tone Teaser: "To hear people talk, you would think no one ever did anything but love each other. But when you look for it, when you search out this love everyone is always talking about, it is nowhere to be found; and when someone looks for love from you, you find you are not able to give it, you are not able to hold the trust and dreams they want you to hold."
Even when I was nothing, I was arriving.
What's in a Name: The God of Small Things is the kind of book you'll remember forever for its relentless brilliance and beauty. Its author, Arundhati Roy, writes with such poignancy that the setting of Kerala, India, is sure to top your travel bucket list. It's nicknamed "God's Own Country" because of its natural beauty (hence the novel's title). This story has a little bit of everything, from family tragedy to forbidden love, political unrest, and alliteration galore. We witness the interconnection between the details and the bigness, both good and bad.
In this book, everything has a personality, whether it's the house, the feeling, the country, and then the characters themselves, a coffin, and a dead child in the coffin. You can read this book as a teen or an adult, and each time you return, it's a humbling, eye-opening experience.
Tone Teaser: "But what was there to say? Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-colored shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief. Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved.
And how. And how much."
What's in a Name: At the crux of it, The Unbearable Lightness by Milan Kundera is a philosophical story about love and fate. It explores the complexities of choice and how our decisions shape us and those around us. Exploring the personal lives of four very different individuals within the historic setting of Prague Spring in 1968, Kundera challenges the reader to think about the interconnectedness between personal and public life.
Tone Teaser: "For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes."
Chapter Two: Short Stories
What's in a Name: This collection of short stories was such a captivating read that I had to try to pace myself so I wouldn't devour the whole thing in one (Wi-Fi–free) plane ride. It's eerie, erotic, absurd, and effective. The other night I had a dream that she fleshed out one of the short stories into a full-fledged novel (blowing my cover as a full-on book geek, here). One story is a series of passages, with each one reimagining an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Tone Teaser: "A feeling settles over me—a one-beer-deep feeling, a no-more-skittering-feet-after-the-trap-snaps feeling."
What's in a Name: It was a hard call between Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (which is about taking a cruise, hilariously), and Every Love Story Is a Love Story, but we went with the first since it encapsulates a larger collection of short stories. Also, there are books you enjoy while reading them, and then there are those you that stay with you and shape you more than you could've imagined, and this is one of those books. For dark humor, flip to the namesake story, "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men." For a story that's pretty much impossible to interpret but will undoubtedly strike you emotionally, read "Church Made With No Hands." For something in the middle, try "Forever Overhead." The teaser below is an entire story, too, exemplifying Foster's genius and range.
Tone Teaser: "When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces. The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one."
Small God laughed a hollow laugh, and skipped away cheerfully. Like a rich boy in shorts. He whistled, kicked stones. The source of his brittle elation was the relative smallness of his misfortune. He climbed into people's eyes and became an exasperating expression.
What's in a Name: This post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy story about what becomes of the world a century after a mass genocide lead by self-aware computers is as creepy and twisted as you'd expect it to be from the title. Interestingly, Harlin Ellison wrote the entire story in one night without editing the first draft, and it won the prestigious Hugo Award in 1968. Before you enter the belly of the beast, get a sense of what you'll find below.
Tone Teaser: "I am a great soft jelly thing. Smoothly rounded, with no mouth, with pulsing white holes filled by fog where my eyes used to be. Rubbery appendages that were once my arms; bulks rounding down into legless humps of soft slippery matter."
What's in a Name: She addresses the reader frequently, so beyond her mastery of language and impressionism, the use of second person alone makes it easy to feel connected to this book. Who doesn't love impactful lessons that also manage to be short and sweet? If you enjoy literature but you don't have time for a full-fledged novel, it doesn't get any better than Miranda July's short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Each tale is thematically unique, but they each fit within the same tone and overall feel.
They are decidedly rooted in the contemporary moment, and yet there's a timelessness to it as well. You'll also get a kick out of the (highly) eccentric characters written with whimsy and wit.
Tone Teaser: "They wordlessly excused each other for not loving each other as much as they had planned to. There were empty rooms in the house where they had meant to put their love, and they worked together to fill these rooms with midcentury-modern furniture."
In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.
What's in a Name: From the title alone, we see there will be humor and satire and little anecdotal glimpses into different "difficult" women. Roxane Gay's talent as a cross-genre writer is impressive, to say the least. Her Marvel comic, novels, and critical essays are continually top sellers, so it's no surprise that her most recent release is also flying off bookshelves. Difficult Women is a collection of short stories, and the title speaks for itself. Written with that trademark charm, compassion, and revolutionary insight, you won't be able to put this one down, even when you come across the disturbing, detailed description of a woman eating expired yogurt.
Tone Teaser: "Everything in my head feels loose, lost."
What's in a Name: Her words are often cutting and defeatist on the surface but liberating when you dig a little deeper, just like the sentiment behind the title. Ottessa Moshfegh has been described as the Flannery O'Connor of our time, so if you're drawn to Southern Gothic literature, you'll get along well with this collection of short stories.
Tone Teaser: "I hated my boyfriend, but I liked the neighborhood."
Chapter Three: Essays and Poems
What's in a Name: This collection of essays borrows its title from Broder’s Twitter handle, and while it's charming as a string of 140 character tweets, it's even better in prose. At times heartbreaking and at others hilariously self-deprecating, Broder's relentless bravery will make you laugh out loud while simultaneously shedding a tear (or 10). She's especially honest and poignant in her writing on love and anxiety in the digital age, with "Never Getting Over the Fantasy of You Is Going Okay." While describing a "lifetime of fictional love stories."
Tone Teaser: "Just saw two ants drown together in a bathtub and thought of us: a love story."
What's in a Name: In the beginning of the essay, she asks, "isn't it fun to read a sentence that races ahead of itself?" If your answer is yes, make sure you read this book as soon as you can get your hands on it.
Tone Teaser: "There's might too in the incomplete. In feeling fractional. A failure to carry out is perhaps no failure at all, but rather a minced metric of splendor. The ongoing. The outlawed. The no-patrol. The act of making loose. Of not doing as you've been told. … Endurance is a talent that seldom worries about looking good, and abiding has its virtues even when the tongue dries. The intention shouldn't only be to polish what we start but to acknowledge that beginning again and again can possess the acquisitive thrill of a countdown that never reaches zero."
I can almost get it with these tweezers. Chlorine in the cupola. Feedback out of ferns.
What's in a Name: In Green Migraine, poet Michael Dickman takes something we wouldn't associate with a color. Each section is a color. It's a fascinating and quite successful way to rethink sensation, and in this case, pain. Especially when we don't have any other way to grasp onto it verbally, though we feel a need to let the pain cry out for a sense of relief. It's also fun to hear how a poet imagines the personalities of each color that we all have a relationship to. You'll never look at yellow (or whatever your favorite color is) the same way again.
Tone Teaser: "Families of worms work their yellow way up through clouds in the mustard air. Yellow fingers work the yellow spine."
What's in a Name: This collection of poetry is as beautiful as the title implies, full of lyrical yet accessible language that unrelentingly fills you with feelings you didn't know you had until you read it. There are also so many fun little plays on words, so if you're a language nerd, you'll love it.
Tone Teaser: "Which is to say: this is how we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say: say switchblade."
There's been time this whole time. You can't kill time with your heart. Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.
What's in a Name: The use of resonance in this title makes it sound like a mantra you want to repeat over and over. And aside from the musical quality that gives these words beauty, they're also full of intrigue. James Baldwin is the greatest essayist of all time, as evidenced by this title alone. The only thing better than reading them yourself is hearing the words from him. Some of his others include "The Fire Next Time," "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "No Name in the Street," "The Devil Finds Work," "The Evidence of Things Not Seen," and "Nobody Knows My Name."
Tone Teaser: "I went down again. My heart and I went down again."
What's In a Name: Diving Into the Wreck… Is that an invitation or a threat? It's like Adrienne Rich is asking if you, the reader, if you'll dive into the wreck of the book. When in doubt, Adrienne Rich will show you the way. If you haven't read Diving Into the Wreck, you're in for a treat. It's packed with little gems of truth that remind us the importance of tenacity in the face of difficult situations, both large and small. Her poetry is clear and direct, and yet it's transcendental enough to get you through a variety of issues.
Tone Teaser: "I came to explore the wreck … I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail."
What's best book title you've ever come across? Share your recommendations in the comments below.