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.
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;
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.
Famous Writers Name “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read” in The New Republic (1934)
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.