I once read the chapter "The Circle and the Square" from Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, where Lame Deer comments on how white people's names have no meaning. Which, while not precisely true, hits on something in American society: naming. We name our children because we like the sound of it or after someone who has meaning in our lives. Rarely do we consider what the name itself means; my name means "fair" or "white" derived from the Welsh Gwenhwyfar/Guinevere, and I know my parents didn't think of that when they named me. They just liked the sound of it.
Although our naming has become aesthetic or a sign of individuality (you've seen the names in the paper), other cultures still put a lot of care and consideration on the naming of their children. The meanings of names and the effects names can have on their bearers is a major theme in Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake. The novel follows the life of Gogol Ganguli, an American boy born to Bengali parents. The novel brings in the cultural gaps between foreign parents and their basically American children. Gogol is named such when the letter containing his name is lost between Calcutta and Boston; his father chooses to name him after Nikolai Gogol, the Russian writer who is significant to him as a sign of life in the midst of death.
Gogol grows up never understanding the significance of his name, and growing to hate it. His parents intended Gogol to be his private pet name and Nikhil to be his public name, but as a young boy, Gogol doesn't understand why he has to switch and the American school system doesn't understand Bengali custom, so Gogol sticks. He switches to Nikhil legally when he begins his freshman year at Yale and hopes to make a leave Gogol behind.
Gogol learns about the origin of his name and begins to feel differently about his namesake, finally reaching an understanding of his family's Bengali heritage, his own name's worth, and learning who Gogol is in the process. The novel closes with him in harmony with his family and his name--one of the best conclusions to a novel. I finished feeling closure and satisfied, as well as walking away with some ideas to think about my own family.
The novel was moving and an intriguing examination of not only the significance of names, but the relationships between parents and children and the culture gap between the two. I had a hard time with Lahiri's style at first--it's spartan and often feels a little choppy--but her ability to spin a story and to describe the world pulls the reader in and keeps her transfixed. By the end of the book, I was entranced, and I think I'll be looking for more of her works.