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


Here’s a chal­lenge: for every book rec­om­mend­ed to you by Ama­zon, pick one from the site Neglect­ed Books. No fan­cy algo­rithms here, just old-fash­ioned serendip­i­ty, and you’re unlike­ly to see much over­lap. You will be reward­ed with book after fas­ci­nat­ing book that has slipped through the usu­al mar­ket­ing chan­nels and fall­en into obscu­ri­ty. Most of the authors come rec­om­mend­ed by well-known names, mak­ing them writ­ers’ writers—people whose writer­ly dif­fi­cul­ty or pecu­liar sub­ject mat­ter can nar­row their read­er­ship.

This is not entire­ly a fair assess­ment, and in many cas­es, the work that achieves lit­er­ary noto­ri­ety does so by chance, not mass appeal, but it is undoubt­ed­ly the case that cer­tain kinds of writ­ers write for cer­tain kinds of read­ers. The lit­er­ary edi­tor Mal­colm Cow­ley, helm­ing The New Repub­lic in 1934, thought so, and lament­ed a sys­tem that pre­vent­ed books from reach­ing their intend­ed read­ers. In a call to “America’s lead­ing nov­el­ists and crit­ics,” Cow­ley asked for lists of such books—and in per­haps a retroac­tive vin­di­ca­tion of the listicle—published them in two arti­cles, “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read” and “More About Neglect­ed Books.” Neglect­ed Books, the web­site, quotes Cowley’s announce­ment:

Each year… a few good books get lost in the shuf­fle. It may not be the fault of the pub­lish­er, the crit­ic, the book­seller, it may not be anybody’s fault except that of the gen­er­al sys­tem by which too many books are dis­trib­uted with an enor­mous lot of bal­ly­hoo to not enough read­ers. Most of the good books are favor­ably reviewed, yet the fact remains that many of them nev­er reach the peo­ple who would like and prof­it by them, the peo­ple for whom they are writ­ten.

Cow­ley asked his tar­gets to sug­gest “two or three or four” names and “a few sen­tences iden­ti­fy­ing them.” He got lists from about a dozen writ­ers, includ­ing lions like F. Scott Fitzger­ald,  John Dos Pas­sos, Sin­clair Lewis, Thorn­ton Wilder and crit­ic Edmund Wil­son, who gets a men­tion in both Fitzgerald’s and Dos Pas­sos’ lists. (Fitzger­ald also offered three oth­er titles Miss Lone­ly­hearts by Nathanael West; Sing Before Break­fast by Vin­cent McHugh and Through the Wheat by Thomas Boyd.) Dos Pas­sos, unlike most of the men, names a few women writ­ers, includ­ing Agnes Smed­ley, now revealed to have been a triple agent for the Sovi­ets, the Chi­nese, and Indi­an nation­al­ists, “one of the most pro­lif­ic female spies of the 20th cen­tu­ry.” Dos Pas­sos’ com­men­tary on her auto­bi­og­ra­phy Daugh­ter of Earth—which he mis­re­mem­bers as Woman of Earth—is most­ly under­stat­ed: “An uneven but impres­sive I sup­pose auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive of a young woman’s life in a West­ern min­ing camp and in New York.”

Lib­er­tar­i­an jour­nal­ist Susan La Fol­lette, one of the few women writ­ers sur­veyed, offers only one sug­ges­tion, Ilya Ilf and Evge­ny Petrov’s 1931 comedic Russ­ian nov­el The Gold­en Calf. The descrip­tion alone in this L.A. Times review of a 2010 trans­la­tion has me think­ing this may indeed be an over­looked mas­ter­work of total­i­tar­i­an satire. La Fol­lette said as much three years after its pub­li­ca­tion, writ­ing of her dis­ap­point­ment, “I take this quite per­son­al­ly, because so few peo­ple even know about it that I rarely find any­one who can laugh over it with me.”

While The New Repub­lic is well-known as a left-of-cen­ter pub­li­ca­tion, the mean­ing of the Amer­i­can Left in the thir­ties was much more inclu­sive, even of avowed Marx­ists like The New Mass­es edi­tor Isidor Schnei­der, who names Impe­ri­al­ism, and The State and Rev­o­lu­tion by Lenin and Lenin­ism by Joseph Stal­in. Next to the irony of nam­ing two books that thou­sands have been coerced to read, Schnei­der con­trar­i­ly names the The Poems of Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins, from the aes­thet­i­cal­ly rad­i­cal, but earnest­ly reli­gious­ly con­ser­v­a­tive Irish Jesuit poet. (The lat­ter two sug­ges­tions did not make pub­li­ca­tion since Schneider’s list was already quite long.) 

As inter­est­ing as the lists them­selves is the selec­tion of respons­es to the sec­ond arti­cle. William Saroy­an writes in to rec­om­mend Grace Stone Coates’ Black Cher­ry as the “finest prose you ever saw.” And leg­endary pub­lish­er Alfred A. Knopf writes with a lengthy and detailed expla­na­tion of the books list­ed that he pub­lished. Of one book named, Franz Kafka’s The Cas­tle, Knopf writes, “The Cas­tle is one of my real­ly inglo­ri­ous fail­ures. It is, as Con­rad Aiken says, a mas­ter­piece. But in the orig­i­nal edi­tion it sold only 715 copies, and since Jan­u­ary 3, 1933, we have been offer­ing it at the rea­son­able price of $1 and only 120 copies have been pur­chased.”

Read more on Cowley’s project at Neglect­ed Books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

F. Scott Fitzger­ald Cre­ates a List of 22 Essen­tial Books, 1936

Ernest Hem­ing­way Cre­ates a Read­ing List for a Young Writer, 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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  • Faze says:

    “Lib­er­tar­i­an jour­nal­ist Susan La Fol­lette, one of the few women writ­ers sur­veyed, offers only one sug­ges­tion, Ilya Ilf and Evge­ny Petrovu2019s 1931 comedic Russ­ian nov­el The Gold­en Calf. “nShe’s absolute­ly right. I’ve been read­ing it for a week now. It’s as fresh as if it was writ­ten yes­ter­day, and not so much a satire of total­i­tar­i­an­ism as it is a Mel Brook­sian wild take on every­thing. Good book.

  • Mike says:

    I would add “All About H. Hat­terr,” by G.V. Desani.

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