As someone who is at the beginning/aspiring end of being a published memoirist, I find that volunteering in a used bookstore helps provide a certain perspective on the life of a book.

Once a week, I spend an afternoon sorting through hundreds of donated books. “Sellable” books have already been sent off to the bookstore for shelving or are on their way to being catalogued for online sales. My job is to sort boxes of books into three piles of refuse.

  1. “X-” The name of a second, second-hand bookstore that will receive our castoffs because it has ample room for storage.
  1. “X- -” A third, second-hand bookstore that sells books by the yard (not the title) for decoration, props, nostalgia, et al.
  1. “TG” aka “Total Garbage” These books are considered so un-sellable that it has been declared by the publisher and three layers of resellers that trying to sell them is more costly than they’re worth. Granted, most of these books are super obscure or dated or niche or have been dropped in a bathtub. A few are the ghosts of a runaway bestseller (read: the Twilight series). Some are treasures.

Every week I unearth a gem. Clearing, from the dust of paper and tattered cloth, a book with a dreamy cover or an idea still being held together by a cracked, disintegrating binding. This week I found the first edition of Now all We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way (1994) by André Bernard.

In this slim paperback, I learned that Gone with the Wind was nearly called Pansy. To my amusement, Helen Gurley Brown—the original “Cosmo Girl”—recalled titling her 1962 sensation.

“Originally I called it Sex for the Single Woman but everyone felt that was too ‘immoral’ (as though I was promoting sex among these people) so I cleaned it up and called it Sex and the Single Woman.”

Apparently, the title Main Street (versus Sinclair Lewis’s choice The Village Virus) caused “a wave of hate mail and hostile sermons preached throughout the country,” because it challenged the “cherished notion of village life in rural America as honest ‘Christian’ living.” While I knew that Vanity Fair was once The Novel without a Hero: Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, I had no idea that William Thackeray conjured the enduring title from a line in John Bunyan’s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

And Thomas Wolfe’s Look Home, Angel was changed from O Lost because his editor considered it “flabby.”

A rendering of Gertrude Stein in Now all We Need is a Title, perhaps wondering if Toklas might whip up some of her infamous hashish brownies

A rendering of Gertrude Stein in Now all We Need is a Title, perhaps catching a whiff of Toklas baking her infamous hashish brownies

 

My favorite tidbit was the story behind The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). Toklas was notoriously shy. Her longtime companion, Gertrude Stein, wrote her autobiography in six weeks under the cheeky titles: My Life with the Great; My Twenty-Five Years with Gertrude Stein; and Wives of Geniuses I Have Sat With. The author of Now all We Need… included Stein’s quip that since Toklas did an autobiography, “now anybody will do theirs.”

Indeed.

Also by André Bernard Rotten Rejections: A Literary Companion. I’m gonna keep an eye out for it.