A different book list

by Eszter Hargittai on December 5, 2003

I’ve enjoyed reading the various book rankings. One problem with such lists, however, is that they rarely offer new books to consider. Were there any books on those lists that we haven’t heard of? Unlikely. I realize that isn’t necessarily the point of such lists, but it got me thinking along those lines anyway. I recall enjoying the thread generated on Kieran’s blog back in the summer about long reads.

I would like to read some more about books that I am less likely to have come across already but come highly recommended nonetheless. I thought one possible approach could be to compile a “best of” list consisting of books on our bookshelves that seem obscure (at times even to us owners of those books) or are perhaps not so obscure per se but are nonetheless unlikely to be found on the shelves of others.. not because they’re not good but because they are less mainstream.

So here are a few books I really like but are unlikely to be on too many people’s bookshelves.

I’ll start with the winner of the “absolutely most obscure book on my shelves” award even though I realize it will have limited appeal. It has to be the Hungarian-Japanese dictionary I acquired years ago when I was studying Japanese in Hungary. I’m afraid I have little use for it now, but it is too unique to get rid of (and too obscure not to mention here). I realize, however, that this will have little appeal to most people on the globe (including most people in Hungary and Japan). So moving on…

I suspect many would find my little collection of Titeuf cartoon books somewhat obscure. Titeuf was “born” in Carouge just outside of Geneva, but my understanding is that he’s become pretty popular in the rest of the francophone world as well. The stories are about everday events through the eyes of a little boy. His views of the world are very naive, but very understandable.. and quite funny.

A nice coffee-table book for people who like to ponder facts and figures about the social world is Understanding USA.

For those who like fiction, I recommend The Notebook by Agota Kristof. If you ever took a francophone lit (as in French lit not by French authors) class you may have come across her work. Otherwise, I suspect unlikely even though it’s really good reading. It’s about twins during wartime and if you know a bit about the biography of the author then you can figure out which time period, but that part is not essential to getting a lot out of the book. (The author immigrated from Hungary to Switzerland in the 1950s.)

A good chunk of the books on my bookshelf are art books so I’ll finish with one of those. Egon Schiele is not necessarily obscure depending on how much you know about early twentieth-century European painting, but he is much less known than someone like Klimt (an artist who had considerable influence on Schiele) and many others from that period. His rendering of the human body is quite incredible. I recommend collections of his work for anyone’s art library.

I realize that’s pretty eclectic and I’m reaching across genres, but such is my collection and that’s how I prefer it. Obviously, I could go on and on, but those are definitely books that would keep me good company if stuck on an island or at an airport one day.



judson 12.05.03 at 9:10 pm

3 farmers on thier way to a dance- richard powers

child of god – cormac mccarthy

white noise – don dellilo

9 stories – salinger


Ophelia Benson 12.05.03 at 9:11 pm

Good idea.

Here are a couple.

Randall Jarrell’s Pictures From an Institution. A novel that’s almost a workout to read – not because it’s difficult, but because the wit is so intense. It’s necessary to read it one sentence at a time, because each sentence packs a wallop. You don’t want to read it all in one go like an ordinary novel, but taken in small increments, it’s unsurpassed. It does have one major flaw, which is that the protagonist, who is all too obviously Jarrell himself, is flawless, and that gets old after awhile. But other than that…

The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford. Not what you’d call obscure, but not on those 100 favorite lists, either. Oh, lordy – how it does make one shriek. For instance when Mr Salteena and Ethel are about to leave on their trip, and he just runs upstairs to say goodbye to the housemaid. Or when kind Bernard sends Mr Salteena a lovely new top hat, with a ribbon around all complete. When Ethel says she must put on some red rouge because she is rather pale in the face owing to the drains in this house.

The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell. Also in a sense not all that obscure, since it won the Booker back when the Booker was young. But it’s almost forgotten, as far as I can ever see, and it’s great stuff.


Doug Turnbull 12.05.03 at 9:12 pm

I’ll nominate the Autobiography of Elias Canetti, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Fantastic writing that makes you terribly disappointed that he didn’t choose to write more (although his other major works are also excellent.)

I’d add Georg Buchner’s plays, which prefigured Brecht, Sartre, and the theater of the absurd.

Add Mont-Saint Michael and Chartres by Henry Adams, which is a wonderful evocation of medieval Europe.

And finish it off with Wandering, a slender but very wise volume by Hermann Hesse. Much better than the famous Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke.

Oh, and in the “obscure for a Nobel Prize winner” category, I’ll throw out Heinrich Boll and Andre Gide.


Nicholas Weininger 12.05.03 at 9:18 pm

A few fairly obscure gems from my shelf:

Mario Vargas Llosa, _A Fish in the Water_.

_On Liberty, Society, and Politics: Selected Essays of William Graham Sumner_.

Milton Mayer, _They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45_.

John McPhee, _La Place de la Concorde Suisse_.


Ophelia Benson 12.05.03 at 9:20 pm

And then of course there’s Keats’ Letters, and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, and Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life, and Gibbon’s autobiography, just for a few.


Ophelia Benson 12.05.03 at 9:21 pm

This thread is going to have about five thousand comments on it in an hour, you can tell!


Doug Turnbull 12.05.03 at 9:24 pm

This thread is going to have about five thousand comments on it in an hour, you can tell!

Every bibliophile loves to share their recommendations, especially their obscure ones, which make them look smart. :)


Henry 12.05.03 at 9:26 pm

Enthusiastic seconding of _Pictures from an Institution_. Perhaps the best academic novel of all time, and the saddest.

Here’s three other obscurities.

I’ve blogged Robert Irwin’s _The Arabian Nightmare_ before. A witty and frightening consideration of the Arabian Nights as a disease of logic. Also worth picking up is his _Exquisite Corpse_, the purported autobiography of a failed Surrealist painter in 1930’s Britain, which is utterly dazzling from its opening scene on.

Avram Davidson’s _The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy_, is a fascinating series of short stories set in an imaginary country somewhere between Graustark and Ruritania in pre-WWI Europe. Davidson died a few years back in poverty and near-obscurity. Hard to get now; one of the stories is contained in the _Avram Davidson Treasury_ which is still in print (in this volume, the story has an introductory note by Gene Wolfe which is very nearly as mysterious as the resolution of the story itself).

Paul Park’s _Sugar Rain_ trilogy (‘Soldiers of Paradise,’ ‘Sugar Rain,’ ‘The Cult of Loving Kindness’), which has received far, far less attention than it deserves. Gorgeous, savage, bracingly intelligent, and written in quite extraordinary prose.


A Canadian 12.05.03 at 9:35 pm

What a great idea

The Vinland Sagas – Icelandic sagas that are possible accounts of settlements in the Americas. Facinating stuff and quite entertaining.


chun the unavoidable 12.05.03 at 10:06 pm

Judson–thanks for the tip re White Noise. I’ll have to look into inexplicably ignored book.


matt 12.05.03 at 10:07 pm

I’d recommed _It’s Me, Eddie_ by Eduard Limonov, a poet who was exiled from the USSR in the 70’s, came to america, hated it, lived in France for a while, and eventually went back to russia. It’s all the more interesting to read when one considers that when he went back to russia he became a serious slavic nationalist, formed his own “national bolshivic” party, and was thrown in jail for some time for “plotting to over-thrown the government of Kazakhstan”. (He was, surprisingly, found not guilty). His books are now all out of print in the US (I believe) but are worth reading, to see someone who’s consistantly a rebel. Very interesting stuff- in a way as if Henry Miller had been a russian in the US, rather than an American in Paris.


Harry Tuttle 12.05.03 at 10:14 pm

Hakim Bey’s The Temporary Autonomous Zone. Ontological guerilla warfare at its best.

Vannevar Bush’s Endless Horizons. Alternately fascinating (pegged the internet) and laughable (The Simpsons line “I predict that within 100 years computers will be twice as powerful, 10,000 times larger, and so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe will own them.” is a spoof of Vannevar) in its prescience. How come W got his great uncle’s moral compass but not his brain?


Ophelia Benson 12.05.03 at 10:51 pm

“Every bibliophile loves to share their recommendations, especially their obscure ones, which make them look smart. :)”

Hmmm. I know that was a joke and all, but…I do wish bookish types didn’t have to apologize for being bookish types every time they open their mouths. That’s not why I’m doing it, for one, and I don’t think it’s why other people are either. It’s fun, and interesting, that’s why we’re doing it.


fyreflye 12.05.03 at 11:33 pm

Both recommended and obscure:

“The Game of Tarot,” by Michael Dunnett. Did you know those famous fortune-telling cards started as a card game that you can still play? A distinguished philosopher, Dunnett tells the history of the game. Believe it or not, this is a coffee table sized book with very few pictures.

“History of Haiku,” by R H Blyh. A two volume history of the Japanese poetic form with Blyth’s ground-breaking translations.

“The Life of Music in North India: the Organization of an Artistic Tradition,” by Daniel M Newman. Just what it says.

“The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” translated by Stanley Lombardo. The version of Homer’s epics you can actually read for pleasure rather than a grade.

“New and Selected Poems,” by Mary Oliver, our greatest living poet of nature, human and otherwise.

“Zhouyi,” by Richard Rutt. A translation and commentary on the earliest known text of the Chinese Classic of Changes, with a complete translation of the standard neo-Confucian commentaries.

“The Illuminatus Trilogy,” by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Indescribable. PG rating.

I’ve got more like that, but…


T. Gracchus 12.05.03 at 11:55 pm

Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney.
X-Man by Michael Brodsky.
The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright.
Surrealism and Painting by Andre Breton.


Douglas 12.06.03 at 12:40 am

I once had all of J.G. Farrell’s novels, but the Siege disappeared somewhere along the way.. I’d recommend any of them.

Moderately obscure but much praised in years past, Joyce Cary, Triptych. Subtle and funny.

Not particulary obscure but also not much heard of latterly: I’m currently re-reading ‘a dance to the music of time’, Anthony Powell. Frequently hilarious.


boo 12.06.03 at 2:12 am

For literature, my favorite less known author is David Markson; especially Springer’s Progress and Wittgenstein’s Mistress

Outside literature…
Simone Weil: any of her works

Harry Summers: On Strategy, a Critical Anaylsis of the Vietnam War

Le Ly Hayslip: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (the book Oliver Stone’s movie Heaven and Earth was based on.)


sue 12.06.03 at 2:26 am

Not terribly obscure but definitely fun:

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. Although I read a copy from the public library, so it isn’t on my shelf at the moment. Beautiful, mind-stretching, grand and successful.

Frisco Pigeon Mambo by C.D. Payne (though on loan and not on my bookshelf either). Fun and enjoyable, definitely memorable.

George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez’ Where Mathematics Comes From well-written, thus fun to read, and food for thought whether or not one thinks they’re flogging the dead horse of metaphor a little too much.

Anything by Aristophanes, even bad translations are wonderful.

Anything by Stephen Fry, although that is only obscure in the States, he is a bestseller in the UK, correct?

Crimes of Obedience by Herb Kelman – determined my studies for several years after.

Courtesans and Fishcakes : The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson – Read it several times, and it’s one of those books I would love to have written. Wouldn’t you, dear CT-follower?


nnyhav 12.06.03 at 3:31 am

Funny, Pictures from an Institution was my last obscure read. My next obscure read is Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel.


Jeremy Osner 12.06.03 at 4:30 am

I like this idea a lot — I will come back over the next few days with ideas as they occur to me and peruse other people’s lists, for now let me just recommend “The Evolution Man (or, What we did to Father”, by Roy Lewis. It is his only novel (I believe he wrote some short stories), published 1960, and people have not in my experience heard of it.

It is a little bit like Calvino’s “Cosmicomics” except told from the POV of cavemen instead of heavenly bodies. Very funny and a pleasure to read.


Jeremy Osner 12.06.03 at 4:35 am

Oh and, “Slow Learner” by Pynchon. Not that I think that is particularly obscure, not in this crowd anyways, but if you haven’t already read it you should. It is 5 (or 6?) short stories published in magazines before he wrote V. (Actually one of them may have been written in between V and the Crying of Lot 49.)


Collin 12.06.03 at 4:37 am

“Fortune is a River” Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli’s unlikely collaboration before either of them did the work they became known for.

“Cod” History of cod fishing. I know this was a best seller and everyone heard of it, but it was damn good fun.

A few by George MacDonald Fraser:
“Black Ajax” about a slave in the south who gains his freedom as a boxer, rises to become the heavyweight champion, and turns dissolute. We know the story, we’ve seen it a thousand times. It’s just done better here.
“Quartered Safe Out Here” Memoir of Burma at the end of WWII.
Any of the “Flashman” novels. More fun than literature deserves to have.

“My War Gone By, I Miss It So” Talk about your conflicted reads.

“A Few Bloody Noses” American Revolution from British POV.

“Thinking In Pictures” John Sayles on the making of Matewan and the art of filmmaking.

And I just finished my triennial re-read of my favorite novel of friendship-without-some-erotic-subtext between men. Chandler’s “Long Goodbye”. Gets better every time.


cafl 12.06.03 at 4:44 am

“The Master and Margarita”, Mikhail Bulgakov.


Alan McCallum 12.06.03 at 6:22 am

“Fundamental Astrometry”, by V. V. Podobed, and “On Grief and Reason” by Joseph Brodsky. Out of my depth, but both books “challenged” me to read more. I will have to save this list. Great.


s_dub 12.06.03 at 7:54 am

Seeing a few books here that I love. “Master and Margarita” has got to be in my top five, I think.

Colin, if you liked “Cod”, check out “Salt” by the same author.

Here are a few more that spring to mind fiction-wise:

“Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe” – Frederic Tuten
“Sputnik Sweetheart” – Haruki Murakami
“Slaughtermatic” – Steve Aylett
“Hallucinating Foucault” – Patricia Duncker


Geoff Pynn 12.06.03 at 10:47 am

Since Eszter mentioned the Tituef cartoons, I’ll recommend Leviathan by Peter Blegvad. It’s officially a book of comics, but much smarter and stranger than what you’d expect. Really, really funny, too.

Also, anything by Chris Ware.


Chris Bertram 12.06.03 at 11:08 am

Two books from the second world war: Alexander Baron’s novel _From the City, From the Plough_ and Stuart Hood’s memoir of walking out of a POW camp and joining the Italian partisans – _Pebbles from my Skull_ .

_Zistoir Christian: Mes aventures – Histoire vraie d’un ouvrier reunionnais en France_ (Edition bilingue, creole et francaise). What it says. I knew the French translators from the creole and so I have the bilingual edition which wasn’t published in metropolitan France.

Victor Serge, _Ce que tout revolutionnaire doit savoir de la repression_ . What the Bolsheviks found in the Tsarist secret police archives – soon to be copied by themselves.

Geoffrey Fletcher, _The London Nobody Knows_ . (1962) Urinals, docks, cinemas, pubs.


drapetomaniac 12.06.03 at 11:36 am

Aristophanes, Bulgakov, Schiele, Mary Oliver, Dhalgren and Anti-intellectualism in American Life?! All fine suggestions (excepting Mary Oliver, who is tres corny imo) but obscure?

If obscure to Crooked Timber types is set at Aristophanes, I suppose there’s no hope for Li Ch’ing Chao or Sanjay Subrahmanyam or Al-Jahiz or Pepetela or Abdolkarim Soroush or Nissim Ezekiel.

I second the suggestion of Fishcakes, tho.


Bill Burns 12.06.03 at 12:49 pm

Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and its Modern Fate.

A beautiful work of history in the elegaic mode.

I have a weakness for painstaking works of scholarship about essentially silly thought. Two of my favorites are Martin Gardner’s Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery and Ronald Numbers The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism.


Matt Freestone 12.06.03 at 4:15 pm

I just finished re-reading The Arabian Nightmare, so another vote for that.

Only mildly obscure books I’d recommend:
Le Ton Beau de Marot – Douglas Hofstadter. Very deep but with a great sense of fun and love of language. Better than GEB imho.

Perfume – Patrick Susskind (this may be un-obscure generally, but I only know one other person who has read it). Beautifully written, and very nasty.

More obscure:
The Pleasures of Counting – Tom Koerner. Mathematical essays (you do need to be comfortable with maths to read this book) on lots of interesting topics from cholera epidemics to WWII crypto.


--kip 12.06.03 at 4:21 pm

I must (must!) second Henry’s recommendations of Davidson’s Eszterhazy stories, and Paul Park’s Starbridge books; wow. –To that, I’ll add You Bright and Risen Angels by William T. Vollmann (I’m a Vollmann nut, but when pressed I’ll narrow it down to his first novel); Illywhacker, by Peter Carey (or should it be The Tax Inspector? Oh, hell); Facing the Tank, by Patrick Gale; I’m assuming W.G. Sebald and Bruce Chatwin aren’t “obscure” around these parts, but recommend them anyway; A Mirror for Princes by Tom DeHaan is almost impossible to find, but a must for serious aficionados of the fantastic; what John Crowley is doing with Ægypt and Love and Sleep and Dæmonomania (and a fourth, to come) is so much better than perpetually overrated undergrad fave Little, Big that it’s criminal; I keep going back to Samuel Delaney’s Shorter and Longer Views (I keep going back to just about everything by Delaney, except Dhalgren; Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is unquestionably one of my desert island books); I’ll jump tracks momentarily to comics to sneak Hiyao Miyazaki’s manga of Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind in here, and then I’ll round it off with a rousing shout-out to Tove Jansson and her marvelous, beautiful, indispensible Moomintroll books.


Jeremy Osner 12.06.03 at 4:38 pm

A hearty yes! to Kip’s recommendation of the Moomintroll saga — I was recently at my grandmother’s house and rediscovered these — they are excellent.


Ray 12.06.03 at 5:32 pm

I’m afraid I’m with the drapetomaniac (except in dismissing corn) — it can’t be that obscure if you’ve met anyone else who’s read it, much less if it’s taught in schools.

One personal touchstone that I haven’t yet written about but that I keep pressing on people is the amazing Barbara Comyns, whose novels are what “Magic Realism” should refer to in English. So far not a single recipient of my book loans has heard of her before.

(None of which is meant to deny Tove Jannson her rightful leading place in the Western canon.)


Ophelia Benson 12.06.03 at 5:46 pm

Okay, okay, so some of them aren’t obscure, but they’re not on the top 100 lists either, so cut us a little slack, here.

And we have three mentions of Pictures from an Institution, so I truly hope some people are going to discover it via this thread.


drapetomaniac 12.06.03 at 7:36 pm

I’m afraid I’m with the drapetomaniac (except in dismissing corn)

Well, let me hasten to add, I’m not dismissing corniness wholesale, only Mary Oliver’s particular corny type of corny epiphanies in badly made poems. I’m rather fond of other kinds of corniness, WE Henley, Blake etc.

Okay, okay, so some of them aren’t obscure, but they’re not on the top 100 lists either, so cut us a little slack, here.

Pictures From an Institution is not obscure neither, I knew of it when I had pigtails. : p But really, I was just shuddering in pain that multiculturalism has so little hope when even Dead White Men of the most canonical sort get counted as obscure.


Ophelia Benson 12.06.03 at 8:52 pm

No, I know, Pictures isn’t really obscure, but then again, it’s a lot more obscure than it ought to be. In short, there are people who haven’t read it!

And as for the poor dear Dead Ones – all I can say is, I’ve been leading a book group for mre than (gasp) seven years now under the name of ‘Fun With Dead White Guys.’ And what fun we do have, to be sure.


Doug Muir 12.06.03 at 9:13 pm

For “most obscure Nobel Prize winner” (literature), surely Ivo Andric must at least be in the running.

His masterpiece, _The Bridge on the Drina_, is still available in English. It’s really good. The story of a bridge, and the village that grew up around it, told across more than 300 years. It’s not really like anything else; the closest I can come is maybe a Balkan _Hundred Years of Solitude_, and that’s not too close.

Tolle, lege.

Doug M.


Doug Muir 12.06.03 at 9:33 pm

Nonfiction has been a little neglected, no?

_The Eyelids of the Morning_. A coffee table book, long OOP. Idiosyncratic and unsentimental look at crocodiles in Africa from an African POV, with lots of luscious color photos. Not for the squeamish — has things like a photo showing what’s left of a Peace Corps volunteer after a local croc is done with him — but very good stuff, and holds up surprisingly well after 30-some years.

_Vagrant Viking_, by Peter Freuchen. Unquestionably the most purely fun book ever written by an Arctic explorer. Never mind Scott and Shackleton — Freuchen is so vastly more engaging and interesting a character. And hey, he admits to having sex with Eskimos, which is AFAIK unique to explorers of his generation.

_Up In The Old Hotel_, by Joseph Mitchell. Collection of New Yorker essays — good ones. If you like that style (it hasn’t changed much over the years) you will love this book. The best ones deal with NY history, often very obscure. The one about the colony of freed slaves and their descendants, who lived quietly on Staten Island from the 1850s until 1970, or so is probably my favorite.

In print (trade pb) but I only know one other person who’s read it — Carlos, who recommended it to me, and who has read everything.

And finally, on a lighter note, there’s _Doctor Dogbody’s Leg_, by James Norman Hill. Anyone who enjoys Patrick O’Brian or C.S. Forester will like this book. (In terms of sophistication it falls between them, perhaps a bit closer to Forester.)

It’s the story of how doctor F. Dogbody, naval surgeon, lost his leg. Except it’s not one story, but nine: he tells it again and again, and every time the circumstances are completely different.

…okay, two more: if you like historical novels, rummage around the 2HB stores and online markets for pretty much anything by either Lawrence Schoonover or Mika Waltari. Both wrote in the ’40s and ’50s, both are long OOP. Fun reads rather than great literature, but altogether enjoyable.

Doug M.


Doug Muir 12.06.03 at 9:35 pm

Holy moly — I almost forgot _The Space Child’s Mother Goose_!

Higgledy Piggledy, my black hen
She lays eggs in the Relative When
She doesn’t lay eggs in the Positive Now
Because she’s unable to postulate how.

If you see it, grab it.

Doug M.


Ophelia Benson 12.06.03 at 10:40 pm

And I forgot to mention Hans Reichenbach. He ought to be obscure enough.


fyreflye 12.06.03 at 11:23 pm

“The Rise of Scientific Philosophy.” Read it when I was about 19-20. Works like that were actually book club selections back then. I no longer have it, though (stolen by an ex-wife along with everything else) but I saw it out on the open shelves in my local public library recently.


fyreflye 12.06.03 at 11:30 pm

And lay off Mary Oliver, drapetomaniac. I don’t criticize *your* tasteless picks.


drapetomaniac 12.07.03 at 1:00 am

And lay off Mary Oliver, drapetomaniac. I don’t criticize your tasteless picks.

That’s because you haven’t read them. ; p

Just kidding, you’re welcome to slag them off, I’d enjoy defending them.

But just so you know, our greatest living poet is Marilyn Hacker, because Gwendolyn Brooks died last year and the English aren’t letting go of Thom Gunn.


fyreflye 12.07.03 at 1:55 am

I’ve actually read Hacker (ex-wife, by the way, of Sam Delaney) and agree she’s good; and I wouldn’t say a word against Brooks or Gunn. But I didn’t claim Oliver was “great” or “the best;” I just recommended her for a read. Which, as in all such cases, means no more than that I enjoy her.
I don’t think it’s all that easy to determine who’s “great” and who’s “corny.” To find someone who still reads poetry for pleasure instead of a grade is almost miraculous. Why go around killing the pleasure in order to boost one’s ego (and that’s all it is) when we could be celebrating the fact that poets and poetry are still alive in this brutal world?


Walt Pohl 12.07.03 at 2:25 am

Gwendolyn Brooks died? That’s sad.

Has anyone read “Egalia’s Daughter” by Gerd Pedersson? It’s a satire on society with the gender roles reversed. It’s the most obscure book I could think to recommend (it’s very clever).


drapetomaniac 12.07.03 at 10:31 am

Exhibit B:

But I didn’t claim Oliver was “great” or “the best;”… I don’t think it’s all that easy to determine who’s “great” and who’s “corny.”

If you scroll up, you’ll see Exhibit A:
“New and Selected Poems,” by Mary Oliver, our *greatest* living poet of nature, human and otherwise.

To find someone who still reads poetry for pleasure instead of a grade is almost miraculous. Why go around killing the pleasure

Don’t be silly. Lots of people read poetry for pleasure (meet more non-Americans!) and far from being a pleasure-in-poetry-killer, I began by suggesting Li Ch’ing Chao and Nissim Ezekiel!

But at least O wanna-be-miracle you’re proving something William Logan said, viz. oh, Mary Oliver’s bland, consolatory poetry is a favorite of people who don’t like poetry. .


fyreflye 12.07.03 at 4:54 pm

I keep forgetting that even serious blogs attract trolls.


Doug Muir 12.08.03 at 7:30 am

Just want to pitch in with a “me too” for _The Siege of Krishnapur_. It’s sort of like a Flashman novel, except better written, and without the faint but annoying whiff of jingo in the background.

Author J.G. Farrell wrote just three or four books, then died young — in a boating accident IMS — sometime in the early ’70s. Damned shame.

Doug M.


Dan Hardie 12.08.03 at 10:52 am

Obscure (ish) books by famous writers, undeservedly neglected:

Puddn’head Wilson by Mark Twain: one of the very few books which actually deserve the sobriquet ‘savagely funny’. Can’t think why this isn’t acknowledged as a masterpiece- perhaps because it goes in even harder than ‘Huckleberry Finn’ on the perversions of a slave-owning society. Don’t let that put you off: very easy book to read. I laughed like the proverbial drain- more than at any other book this year except ‘Portnoy’s Complaint.’

‘Hadji Murat’ by Leo Tolstoy. About a 120 pages, most of them brilliant. Entirely irrelevant book: ruthless Russians and fanatical Imams slug it out in Chechnya; frustrated by guerrilla tactics, soldiers destroy civilian houses; military losses are shrugged off by leadership…etc. Same sensation as you get with much of ‘War and Peace’, of not actually reading but witnessing something. Available in lots of Tolstoy novella collections, or in a really sexy little edition by Hesperus Press.


Another Damned Medievalist 12.08.03 at 3:54 pm

Hey — I’m going for the pedestrian good reads here. Not obscure, but am tired of academic colleagues who refuse to admit they read popular fiction.

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi — beautifully written, and just plain interesting.

Anything by Terry Pratchett

Anything by Neil Gaiman

All the Flashman books

The Lattimore Iliad and the Fitzgerald Aeneid (I never liked the Odyssey)

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Presents Trilogy and Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books (ADM has young friends and relatives, and these are way better than the Rowling books)


Ophelia Benson 12.08.03 at 4:21 pm

“am tired of academic colleagues who refuse to admit they read popular fiction.”

Er…isn’t that a bit of a pre-judgment? Are you absolutely sure all these colleagues do in fact read popular fiction? Have you seen them doing it, found the stuff in their bookshelves (where of course it could be unread, or read by other people), heard them refer to characters or plots or bits of dialogue they would have no other way of knowing about?

There seems to be this nearly universal assumption that popular fiction (all of it?) is so devastatingly attractive and compelling that everyone, whatever she may say, actually wants to read it and in fact does read it, so anyone who says she doesn’t is lying, is refusing to ‘admit’ that she does. Hmm. But is that true? Is it totally inconceivable that some people just don’t like the stuff? That they simply haven’t had any luck in finding fiction that is both popular and good?

Of course it depends on how one defines popular fiction, too. But that applies to all these reproaches and accusations of people who don’t ‘admit’ they love the stuff.

[To put it another way, I see this as another example of bookish people beating up on bookishness. I might have to do a dictionary, or Rhetoric Guide, to the whole thing, to keep track of all the different ways there are for bookish people to foul their own nests.]


Ophelia Benson 12.08.03 at 4:26 pm

On the other hand, if popular fiction includes The Iliad and Philip Pullman, I take it all back. (Try the Odyssey again. Concentrate on the reunions. Read it in company with Ralph Hexter’s A Guide to the Odyssey, which is not a trot but an annotation, which enriches the reading enormously. I think.)


Dan Hardie 12.08.03 at 6:38 pm

Undeservedly forgotten thriller writer: Eric Ambler. Read anything by him: ‘Dr Frigo’ marvellous, ‘Passage of Arms’ the least violent and very prescient abt post-colonial Asia, ‘Journey into Fear’ also very good.

Thriller writer undeservedly unknown by Americans: Michael Dibdin. Variable quality- try ‘Ratking’, ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ (sic), ‘Dirty Tricks’.

Essayist: Joseph Brodsky. Haven’t read ‘Grief and Reason’, but ‘Less than one’ is superb.

Obscure, remaindered, brilliant book on boxing: ‘This bloody mary is the last thing I own’, Jon Rendall. I got my copy for 99p.Far better than the bloviator Mailer.

Not as obscure as it used to be: Joseph Roth, ‘The Radetzky March’. Marvellous novel about the decline of the Habsburg Empire.

Once-famous, now-forgotten writer who wrote poor thrillers but superb military history and historical novels: Len Deighton- ‘Fighter’ on the Battle of Britain and ‘Bomber’ on the RAF bombing of Germany. Give it a look: the latter in particular is a really sinister evocation of modern war.

Geoffrey Blainey, ‘The causes of war’: very stimulating work by an Australian historian who later lurched to the far right. Only interesting general study of this subject I know.


Dan Hardie 12.08.03 at 6:44 pm

Damn- Dibdin’s book is of course ‘Cosi Fan Tutti’, opera ‘Tutte’.


nnyhav 12.08.03 at 8:57 pm

Terry Teachout quotes Jarrell, obscure or no.


Ophelia Benson 12.08.03 at 9:03 pm

See, that’s what I mean, it’s all like that. You can’t possibly read it quickly. Nor would you want to – but you do sort of need to put it aside and rest now and then.

That’s such a brilliant bit. I think I’ll add it to Quotations.


S. Baum 12.09.03 at 6:47 pm

Try my page on
Unusual Literature


ANother Damned Medievalist 12.09.03 at 8:33 pm

I see this as another example of bookish people beating up on bookishness

No — just thought it odd that no one was mentioning perfectly legitimate “fun” reading that hadn’t been nominated for some prize or other. Or to put it another way, the kind of book that screams, ‘Serious Novel.’ Most of my colleagues admit quite happily that they think Nick Hornby is great (although I’m the only one who likes Fever Pitch best, but then I would. And I agree with the pitch for Michael Dibdin. I’m actually reading some Duerrenmatt now to get my crime novel fix. And I try to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird every couple of years because it’s so good, as is almost everything by Miss Austen.

I just get the feeling that occasionally these lists reflect more ‘should read if you are the right kind of reader’ books than ‘books we really did love, but don’t want our colleagues to think we’re not erudite enough.’

Any particular translation of the Odyssey, BTW?


Phil Mole 12.09.03 at 11:42 pm

I’d like to plug Joseph Roth, who seems to be getting some belated attention lately. Someone already mentioned “Radetzky March,” so I’ll recommend his “Tarabas” as a particularly neglected novel. A wonderful book about the potential for religious impulses to make us both saints and sinners, and the disturbingly ambiguous line between the two.

Other picks: Stanley Elkin’s “The Living End,” Chester B. Himes’ “If He Hollers Let Him Go” (a should-be American classic), and Olaf Stapledon’s “Odd John” (a terrific sci-fi novel about the moral and metaphysical implications posed by the potential existence of vastly superior intelligence). And Jim Crace’s “Quarantine” and Jose Saramago’s “Gospel According to Jesus Christ” – two of the best examples of Biblically themed fiction I’ve read.

Daniel Schreber’s “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness” is a book that defies categorization. I just started it, but it’s part autobiography of a mentally disturbed man at the turn of the last century, part cultural criticism, part Gnostic theology, and 100% captivating. Available in a nice edition from New York Review of Books Classics.

Since it’s almost Christmas, I’d like to mention Stephen Nissenbaum’s “Battle for Christmas,” which is a fascinating work of non-fiction social history. The complete history of Christmas, and how it became both a revered family holiday and a celebration of commercialism. Terrific stuff.

Phil Mole


rune 12.11.03 at 9:06 am

Someone mentioned Egalia’s Daughters – it was actually written by Gerd Brantenberg, who is a well-known feminist in Norway.

A couple for the list, maybe not overly obscure:

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino – amazingly enganging for an abstract postmodernist novel.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis – about a fascist coup in the US in the Thirties, which may be mainstream and well-known to you Americans…


David Nix 12.11.03 at 4:56 pm

I’m late coming to the game, but I want to mention the utterly obscure “Yarborough” by B.H. Friedman — completely overlooked when it was published in the mid-1960s, but a fabulous narrative of youth and young adulthood, set in the 1930s-50s. (It helps a lot if you know something about the game of bridge.)


tom zipp 12.15.03 at 1:57 pm

obscure read:
HARV by Don Robertson
blue collar Holden Caufield grows up. Dust jacket with promo from Stephen King.

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