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


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

  • 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

  • John Fordham says:

    I would humbly sub­mit the fol­low­ing mas­ter­pieces:

    1. Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Domain) ALAIN-FOURNIER
    2. The Tar­tar Steppe — Dino BUZZATI
    3. The Leop­ard — Giuseppe TOMASI di LAMPEDUSA

    So what if they are “for­eign” writ­ers — genius recog­nis­es no nation­al or racial con­fines.

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