“Neglected Books” You Should Read: Here’s Our List; Now We Want Yours

the-confidence-man

Last week we highlighted a feature from the excellent website Neglected Books detailing two articles that appeared in The New Republic in 1934 on “good books that almost nobody has read.” The articles were the product of a query the magazine’s editor, Malcolm Cowley, sent out to the literary community of his day, asking them to list their favorite unsung books. Such lists are bound fast to their historical context; fame is fleeting, and great works are forgotten and rediscovered in every generation. Some of the books named then—like Franz Kafka’s The Castle or Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts—have since gone on to notoriety. Most of them have not. This week, we thought we’d continue the theme with our own list of “neglected books.” I offer mine below, and I encourage readers to name your own in the comments. We’ll feature many of your suggestions in a follow-up post.

A few words about my by-no-means-definitive-and-certainly-incomplete list. These are not obscure works. And you’ll note that there are almost no recent works on it. This is due at least as much to my own lamentable ignorance of much contemporary literature as to a conviction that a work that isn’t widely read months after its publication is not, thereby, “neglected.” In the age of the internet, books can age well even after they’re remaindered, since instant communities of readers spring up overnight on fansites and places like Goodreads. Instead, my list consists of a few neglected classics and a book of poetry that I personally think should all be read by many more people than they are, and that I think are timely for one reason or another. Maybe some of these books have gotten their due in some small circles, and in some cases, their influence is much greater than sales figures can ever reflect. But they’re works more people should read, not simply read about, so I offer you below five titles I think are “neglected books.” You may interpret that phrase any way you like when you submit your own suggestions.

  •  Cane by Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer’s Cane is well-known to students of the Harlem Renaissance, but it isn’t read much outside that academic context, I think, which is a shame because it is a beautiful book. Not a novel, but a collection of short stories, poems, and literary sketches inspired by Toomer’s stint as a substitute principal in Sparta, Georgia in 1921, Cane practically vibrates with the furious and fragile lives of a collection of characters in the Jim Crow South. Yet like all great books, it transcends its setting, elevating its subjects to archetypal status and immortalizing a time and place that seems to live only in caricature now. Read the first sketch, “Karintha,” and see what I mean.

Olive Schreiner is another writer who receives her due in scholarly circles but is little read outside the classroom. Schreiner was a white South African woman who turned her experiences of race, gender, and nation to literary fame with her novel The Story of an African Farm in 1883. The novel’s success at the time did not necessarily grant its author lasting fame, and while Schreiner has been lauded for transforming Victorian literature with her freethinking, feminist views, the book that once made her famous is an almost shockingly un-Victorian work. Short, stark, impressionistic, and very unsentimental, The Story of an African Farm may find purchase with scholars for historical or political reasons, but it should be read for its stunning prose descriptions and piercing dialogue.

 Carpentier was a Cuban novelist, scholar, and musicologist who is not much read in the English-speaking world, and perhaps not much in Latin America. Although he coined the term “magical realism” (lo real maravilloso)—as part of his theory that Latin American history is so outlandish as to seem unreal—his literary fame in the States has never reached the degree of more fantastic practitioners of the style. Although perhaps best known, where he is known, for his harsh tale of Haiti’s first king, the brutal Henri Christophe, in The Kingdom of this World, Carpentier’s complex and mysterious 1953 The Lost Steps is a novel that justifies my calling him the Nabokov of Latin American letters.

Melville was certainly a neglected writer in his time. He is, it should go without saying, no more. But while everyone knows Moby Dick (if not many finish it), Billy Budd, and “Bartelby,” few people read his, yes difficult, novel The Confidence Man. Also called The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, this was Melville’s last published novel in his lifetime. It’s a darkly comic book that sometimes sounds a bit like Twain in its colorful vernacular and shifting registers, but grows stranger and more unsettling as it progresses, becoming almost a cacophony of disembodied voices in a state of moral panic. The central character, a nameless shape-shifting grifter on a steamboat called the Fidele, takes on a succession of American identities, all of them thoroughly persuasive and all of them thoroughly, calculatedly, false.

The only book of poetry on my list also happens to be the only book by a living writer. It also happens to be a book that makes me tremble each time I think of it. De Kok, a South African poet, takes as her inspiration for her 2002 Terrestrial Things the transcripts from her country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from “The Sound Engineer,” a poem prefaced by the matter-of-fact statement that the “highest turnover” during the Commission, “was apparently among reporters editing sound for radio.”

Listen, cut; comma, cut;

stammer, cut;

edit, pain; connect, pain; broadcast, pain;

listen, cut; comma, cut.

Bind grammar to horror,

blood heating to the earphones,

beating the airwaves’ wings.

 

For truth’s sound bite,

tape the teeth, mouth, jaw,

put hesitation in, take it out:

maybe the breath too.

Take away the lips.

Even the tongue.

Leave just sound’s throat.

So there you have my list. I hope it has inspired you to go discover something new (or old). If not, I hope you will submit your own neglected books in the comments below and share your hidden literary treasures with our readers.

Public domain books listed above will be added to our collection of 500 Free eBooks.

Related Content:

Famous Writers Name “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read” in The New Republic (1934)

20 Books People Pretend to Read (and Now Your Confessions?)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.


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  • Tom Speaker says:

    “God Knows” by Joseph Heller — Heller writes from the perspective of the Old Testament’s King David, who as an old man (somehow able to see into the future and grasp his influence on Jewish culture) spends most of his time lamenting homosexual readings of his life story, as well as Bathsheba’s refusal to sleep with him. Like all Heller, it’s very funny, but it’s also very lonely, and I can never make it to the end without getting choked up at his evocation of emotional alienation.

  • monkeysntypewriters says:

    I read non-fiction. A few wonderful histories that didn’t get enough attention are:

    At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, by Roger Ekirch. Fascinating exploration of life after dark in medieval and renaissance Europe, along with an explanation of how human sleep patterns changed with the spread of artificial lighting.

    Too Many to Mourn, James and Rowena Mahar. An account of the little-known Halifax Explosion, until Hiroshima the largest man-made explosion in human history.

    The Other Side of Night, Daniel Allen Butler. About the two ships closest to the Titanic disaster, the Californian and the Carpathian, the vastly different choices made by their captains, and the toll, in human lives, of those choices.

  • californiaoak says:

    The Jungle Novels, but B. Traven. Masterpieces of historical fiction. In order: Government, The Carreta, March to the Monteria, Trozas, The Rebellion of the Hanged, The General from the Jungle. Note: Wikipedia lists The Carretta as the first novel, but that is wrong, regardless of publication date records. The correct sequence for reading these books is shown above.

  • Curt Freeman says:

    As for Non-Fiction works, two that immediately come to mind and that I can highly recommend are:nn”The Professor And The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary” by Simon WinchesternnThe Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary–and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. (Amazon)nnThe Last Place on Earth:, by Roland HunfordnnAt the beginning of the twentieth century, the South Pole was the most coveted prize in the fiercely nationalistic modern age of exploration. In the brilliant dual biography, the award-winning writer Roland Huntford re-examines every detail of the great race to the South Pole between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Scott, who dies along with four of his men only eleven miles from his next cache of supplies, became Britain’s beloved failure, while Amundsen, who not only beat Scott to the Pole but returned alive, was largely forgotten. This account of their race is a gripping, highly readable history that captures the driving ambitions of the era and the complex, often deeply flawed men who were charged with carrying them out. THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH is the first of Huntford’s masterly trilogy of polar biographies. It is also the only work on the subject in the English language based on the original Norwegian sources, to which Huntford returned to revise and update this edition. (Amazon)

  • Kent Bailey says:

    I have two. “Murphy” by Samuel Beckett is an early novel written in English and shows perfect command of the language, as well as a finely-tuned wit. Opening line – “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing-new.” And there’s “Maldoror” by Le Conte de Lautreamont, which can only be described as Baudelaire/Rimbaud to the Xth power.

  • Erik Weijers says:

    Neglected due to lack of translation: A circus boy by Dutch author Gerard Reve (1923-2006). But I am working on it: http://bit.ly/16GECRr

  • Epiminondas says:

    I cannot think of a better candidate than Dutch author Hella Haasse’s “In a Dark Wood Wandering”, one of the greatest historical novels ever written. There is an interesting story behind its translation into English, with the nearly completed manuscript lying in a burned out Chicago house in a state of near ruin. But it made it to publication and you can get it here… http://www.amazon.com/In-Dark-Wood-Wandering-Middle/dp/089733356X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382985031&sr=8-1&keywords=hella+haasse

  • m says:

    Nabokov- The real life of Sebastian KnightnLu00e9o Malet- Il fait toujours nuitnMachado de Assis- Bru00e1s CubasnGuimaru00e3es Rosa- Grande Sertu00e3o: VeredasnGeorge Orwell- Down and out in Paris and LondonnKafka- A Hunger ArtistnGogol- Dead Souls

  • Marcia C. dos Santos says:

    My suggestion is a not very known book by the very known author of The Little Prince: The Wisdom of the Sands, English tittle of Antoine de Saint-Exupu00e9ry’s book Citadelle. The book doesn’t have a plot, it is, in fact, a diary or a notebook of thoughts. It was published posthumously in 1948. It takes Saint-Exupu00e9ry’s philosophy to a brighter light and is a reading key for the author’s previous work. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a free downloadable version of the book in any online library, but the prices of the printed version around the world seem to be very affordable. So here goes the Google Books page on The Wisdom of the Sands as an introduction to the book cover: http://books.google.com.br/books/about/The_Wisdom_of_the_Sands.html?id=5D_DAAAACAAJ&redir_esc=y

  • Mary Roush says:

    ANY book by James Salter. I thought Tim O’Brien was the ultimate crafter of sentences until I read Salter. If you read one, you’ll want to read them all.

  • Michel de Silva says:

    A strange author that refused to be categorized as absurd or surrealist, Gombrowicz was a controversial figure in Polish litterature. His first novel was actually an answer to critics assessment of his first collection of short stories that had accused him of being immature. As he was writing the novel, it grew to champion immaturity by embrassing half-assedness. Ferdyrdurke by Witold Gombrowicz

  • bewat says:

    Fiction — “The World as I Found It,” Bruce Duffy’s debut novel about Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russelln”Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez — everyone reads “100 Years of Solitude” but this gem is just waiting for you.n”The Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac — much better than “On the Road”n”The Book of Job” — yeah, that Job. OMG.nnnnNon-fictionn”Praying for Sheetrock,” one of the best books about the Civil Rights Movement and the rural Southnn”Snowblind” by Robert Sabbag — wild ride through the cocaine trade, would have been a best-seller had it come out a few years later.n”Goodbye, Darkness,” by William Manchester — even if you hate war and are sick of WWII, this is one amazing memoir.

  • Plantagenet King says:

    “Breakfast in the Ruins” by Michael Moorcock.nThere, I said it.

  • carjack says:

    Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. Wonderful book.

  • Meg Egg says:

    I like your list. I would include Gayle Jones’ ‘Corregidora’ — a remarkable novel, by a living writer. I would also include James Baldwin’s ‘The Price of the Ticket’, which is a collection of 30 years of his incomparable essays, as well as a PBS production (which I haven’t seen). Both of these are neglected (Jones’ more so than Baldwin’s), and should be read.

  • John Phillips says:

    My favorite novel of all time is probably “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson. Jackson is a forgotten treasure – “The Haunting Of Hill House” manages to stay in print, and her short story “The Lottery” is the most powerful and terrifying thing most people read in high school. But her other works are all just as good, or better, and most folks have never heard of them. She never published a bad sentence, and her stories are spare, dark, and worm their way into your psyche in a very subtle and delicious way.

  • samy says:

    poisonwood bible

  • Margalo says:

    Some great suggestions from other readers – thanks! I second “The Last Place on Earth,” by Roland Hunsford – absolutely gripping. I would add “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Undset.

  • Brad Walseth says:

    Crystal Falls

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