Susan Orlean, David Remnick, Ethan Hawke, and Others Pick Their Favorite Obscure Books

On to Chapter Two! We ask another round of authors for recommendations.

Furst is the author of The Spies of Warsaw

Nell Freudenberger: Myself a Mandarin, by Austin Coates

It's the account of Coates's own service as a "special magistrate" in the New Territories of Hong Kong, beginning from 1949, just as thousands of Nationalist refugees arrived there. With no training whatsoever in law—Coates faked "internal spasms" on the day he was supposed to schedule his law exam—he's suddenly in charge of a provincial Chinese court, deciding cases of divorce, land use, and disputed cow ownership. The idiosyncratic narrative of his surprisingly successful tenure there is one of the funniest and most honest expatriate stories I've ever read.

Strange name, good book: Shakespeare contemporary Fulke Greville
Archive Photos/Getty Image
Strange name, good book: Shakespeare contemporary Fulke Greville

Freudenberger is author of Lucky Girls

Dale Peck: The Zombie Pit, by Sam D'Allesandro

In the not-too-distant future, literary scholars may finally realize that the books that most accurately reflect our national character are not the massive, mighty tomes of Manifest Destiny and Oedipal omnipotence, but rather the small, sharp voices that cut through the false bravado and lay bare the insecurity, fearful yet hopeful, that preserves us against our excesses. Perhaps, when that day comes, my favorite book of the 1990s will finally get its due: Sam D'Allesandro's The Zombie Pit, a tiny, posthumous collection of short stories that seamlessly fuses punk idealism with encroaching mortality and reminds us that the minutes are just as precious as the hours, the days worth every bit as much as the years.

Peck is the author of Martin and John

Anne Rice: The Priority of John by John A.T. Robinson

It was a remarkable book for its time, causing people to see the gospels in an entirely new light. The main point is that John's gospel may be first-person witness, and that it makes a great deal of sense as a document if you read it carefully. The book was instrumental in my gospel studies, and I began to really "see" the gospel stories after I read it.

Rice is the author of Called Out of Darkness

Kevin Baker: Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire by Richard Snow

The books you remember are the ones that draw you into enchantment. When I was a kid, it was a 1930 edition of Treasure Island illustrated by Lyle Justis that my father handed down to me. When I was an adult, it was Richard Snow’s Coney Island, A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire, which features dozens of the hand-colored postcards used to promote Coney Island at the turn of the century, and a wonderful text by Snow, who has long been Coney’s most elegant chronicler.

Baker is the author of Dreamland

A.J. Jacobs: Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey

The book is just what it says it is. The confessions of an opium eater. And it's great. The prose is sometimes elegant, sometimes totally purple ("my mind tossed and surged with the ocean"), but it's a fascinating peek at a 19th-century London intellectual's battle with narcotics. I especially love his vivid opium dreams—"I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud." Nilotic mud—you don't see that phrase in our average 12-step confession.

Jacobs is the author of The Year of Living Biblically

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