It’s a lot like naming the baby. The search for the perfect title torments some authors all through the writing of their books. And although readers can’t (or shouldn’t) judge a book by its cover, its title is a different story.
Once in a while the ideal title will spring to a writer’s mind right along with the initial idea. This happened to Joseph Heller in the case of Catch-22. Heller visited my high school in the early 1960s when Catch-22 was an international bestseller, and told us the memorable story of its naming and re-naming: He had always called the book “Catch-18” while writing it, he said, and every instance of the phrase “Catch-22” had appeared as “Catch-18” in his manuscript. But shortly before the book’s release, his publisher summoned him to a meeting where “people were sitting around the room with their chins on the floor,” stunned by news of a new book by Leon Uris, the celebrated author of Exodus, called Mila 18. Two contemporary World War II novels could not coexist with the number 18 in both titles. Someone (maybe Heller himself) suggested 22 instead, and soon everyone in the group agreed that 22’s rat-a-tat tap and visual repetition made important improvements over the discarded 18.
In my own titling experience, I tried hard to avoid using “longitude” in the title of Longitude, as I thought the word might strike dread in the heart. I toyed with “Imaginary Lines” and other euphemisms before conceding that no other title would suit. Although Longitude named its topic as plainly as possible, still the title left room for disbelief. Even now, people occasionally ask me, “What’s it about, really?”
Galileo’s Daughter proved easier to name. The title suggested itself the moment I learned Galileo had fathered an illegitimate child who entered a convent at age thirteen and maintained a loving relationship with him via letters. The book was “Galileo’s Daughter” from the proposal through the first draft and the greatly revised second draft. As the text went to copy-editing and design, however, concern arose that the title smacked of “chick book.” Fortunately for me, no one in the publishing house or literary agency could come up with an acceptable alternative, and the original stuck.
During the years I worked on my book about the planets of the solar system, I needed some way to refer to the work-in-progress, and landed by default on “The Planets” as a working title. As the project developed into a mash-up of popular culture and current astronomy, I came up with “How the Planets Came to Earth.” The publisher strongly preferred “The Planets.” Rather than try to defend my title, I struck a bargain: I said I would go along with the predictable, pedestrian “The Planets” in exchange for a radical subtitle, namely no subtitle. Very few works of nonfiction were appearing sans subtitle, and I thought the absence of one – the deliberate refusal to claim that any aspect of my book might “change the world” – seemed to offer it true distinction. How wrong I was. If ever a book title needed to lean on a subtitle, surely The Planets was it, especially considering the scores of other books by the same title, which range from textbooks to an anthology of poems.
I determined to do better by the next book, concerning Copernicus. His name sufficed as an interim title during the research phase (a Nick-name, if you will), until his own writings suggested something apt. Copernicus had set out to correct certain abuses in the practice of astronomy, and wound up reorganizing the solar system as a side effect of that effort. His mathematical work in restricting the planets to perfectly circular motion defined his vision of “a more perfect heaven.” I liked the sound of that. Given that Copernicus served as a Catholic Church administrator and dedicated his magnum opus to Pope Paul III, I thought the use of the word heaven particularly appropriate. Editors countered, “You can’t say ‘heaven’ in the title of a book about astronomy.” I didn’t need to argue the point. The publication of a new work by Harvard cosmologist Lisa Randall, called Knocking on Heaven’s Door, made the way safe for A More Perfect Heaven.
The play I wrote about Copernicus’s campaign for the heliocentric worldview took its title from the Bible, And the Sun Stood Still. Biblical passages are fair game in book titles, even for books with scant religious content. (Think of Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese.) This particular text from the Book of Joshua in fact posed a threat to Copernicus during his lifetime, and made him delay publication of his book till his old age. I not only appropriated it for the title, but also inserted it in the dialogue, so that three of the play’s five characters each allude at least once to Joshua’s command.
Until now, I have never assumed the word universe in a book title. Other authors have spoken freely of the universe in terms of “unveiling” it, “measuring” it, putting it “in a nutshell” or “in your hand.” Their titles describe the universe variously as “elegant,” “crowded,” “extravagant,” “accidental,” “4-percent,” and more. Mine is made of glass.
The phrase “glass universe” may evoke the ancient notion of crystalline celestial spheres, but I use it to describe Harvard’s incomparable collection of half a million glass photographic plates, taken with cameras attached to telescopes, in a century-long effort to catalogue the entire content of the cosmos. The ambitious photography project, begun in the 1880s, is culminating today in a digitization process designed to preserve and disseminate the as yet untapped content of all that glass.
The “glass universe” tickles me because it instantly summons the “glass ceiling.” And while outer space may be considered a sort of ceiling above human affairs, the female astronomers who are the heroines of my story were indeed underpaid compared to their male peers. The ladies’ research reports, letters, and diaries describe their long wait for the right to vote, let alone title or advancement in their field. From the 1880s through the onset of World War II (when most astronomers left the Harvard Observatory for jobs supporting the war effort), fifteen to twenty women at a time made important discoveries by analyzing sky images on glass plates.
The photographed comets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies constitute a kind of “glass menagerie,” tended by women who themselves shared certain properties of glass – by turns molten, malleable, brittle, versatile, fragile, invisible.
(This essay originally appeared on Powells.com.)