You can't beat a good book title - though it's no guarantee that the book itself will be any good

I don't believe that there is a God who watches over my every move, protecting me from harm. Nevertheless only once has anybody broken into a car of mine and on that occasion they only stole one thing. On the back seat there was a copy of The Best of Madness, tempting thieves, as they used to say at school. The reason it was on the back seat was because it had such a terrible scratch across it that it was unplayable and I was taking it back to the shop. Even though there were chunks of glass across the interior, it was still a pleasure to imagine the robber putting the record on his turntable and settling back to: "I never thought I'd miss you half as much as I do. As I do. As I do. As I do. As I do."

I have a similar feeling about Simon Heffer's new book about the "re-invention of England". Actually I don't know anything about the book itself. I just mean the title, Nor Shall My Sword. Not only is Nor Shall My Sword a terrible title. It was a terrible title when F R Leavis first used it 30 years ago. There's nothing necessarily wrong in using a famous quotation like "tender is the night" for a title. You can even use half a quotation, like "the quality of mercy". You can even use a quotation, the meaning of which depends on knowing the rest of it. Umberto Eco admitted that, by chance, The Name of the Rose was a much better title in English than in Italian because it gained from the association with Romeo and Juliet: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would surely smell as sweet."

But the title has to have some content for a reader who doesn't know where the quote comes from. Without knowing "Jerusalem" the title just means "My sword won't", which doesn't seem especially resonant to me. I sometimes wonder if titles really matter. Martin Amis once wrote that titles can be too brilliant, that a clever title was a guarantee of a minor novel (his slightly unfair example was Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square). Admittedly there are titles that are so good - usually of non-fiction books - that the book can hardly compete. Just as you feel that no news story could ever have lived up to the Sun headline "Freddie Starr ate my hamster", so it would be difficult for a book to live up to the promise of You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (Julia Phillips' memoir of life as a producer), My Indecision Is Final (Jake Eberts' account of the rise and fall of the Goldcrest production company) and If They Move . . . Kill 'Em! (David Weddle's biography of Sam Peckinpah) - though, as it happens, all three are terrific books.

There are some books that have the vividness of great advertising slogans. They offer a promise that can seem irresistible. How to Make Friends and Influence People or How Proust Can Change Your Life, which in my view benefited from a wish that literature should be something other than literature: that it should be improving, educational, therapeutic. I wonder how much of Adam Phillips' success is due to the playful nature of titles such as On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored ?

On the other hand, there are some writers who have a sort of anti-talent for titles. Timothy Mo, in particular, seems to choose titles that are deliberately unmemorable: An Insular Possession, The Redundancy of Courage. Admittedly the title of his second novel, Sour Sweet, is rather good, except that studies have shown that when mentioning the title in conversation 90 per cent of people refer to it as "Sweet and Sour". Ian Fleming's titles teeter on the brink: You Only Live Twice is good, in a camp sort of way; Octopussy is just awful.

Too much of a preoccupation with titles may be a sign of superficiality. Larkin thought so when, in his weirdly ambivalent review of Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems, he enumerated all the titles she went through for her first book: "It was called, successively, The Earthenware Head, The Everlasting Monday, Full Fathom Five, The Bull of Bendylaw, The Devil of the Stairs and, finally, The Colossus. The effect is almost farcical."

Maybe the best thing is to choose the name of the main character: Emma, Anna Karenina, David Copperfield. Madame Bovary is clever because it sounds simple and then when you read the book you realise there are three Madame Bovarys.

Best of all was the title in a long-ago New Statesman competition which invited titles that seem good on first thought and disastrous on second thought. The example given was an anthology of young poets called Here Today! Think about it.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world