Our Favorite Writers Pick Their Favorite Obscure Books


Ah, summer! The time to kick back in the sun, sucking up both gin and tonics and intellectual stimulation. But why be the hundredth person on the beach getting sand in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth or smudging Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion with SPF 45? Put some idiosyncrasy into your life, folks! To help guide you through the waters of the literary unknown, we asked a number of authors to name their favorite obscure book. Below, their replies, which we pass along as suggestions for your arcane summer reading.

Jennifer Egan

You Can’t Live Forever, by Harold Q. Masur

In recommending the mystery novels of Harold Q. Masur—all, sadly, out of print—I can do no better than quote the first two paragraphs of You Can’t Live Forever:

“It started with a summons, a brunette, and a Turk.

“The summons was in my pocket, the brunette was in trouble, and the Turk was dead.”

In his savvy, stylish novels of the ’40s and ’50s, Masur manages to wink continuously at the detective genre even as he revels in it.
Egan is the author of The Keep.

John Banville

Some People, by Harold Nicolson

Nicolson was a diplomat, a politician, and a professional writer, married to Vita Sackville-West. Some People, first published in 1927, is a slyly oblique autobiography cast in the form of a series of apparently effortless, semi-fictional sketches of nine characters encountered by Nicolson at various points throughout his peripatetic and fascinating life. Nabokov told Nicolson’s son, Nigel, that the prose style of Some People had been “like a drug” to him, and indeed, Some People is the very model for Speak, Memory. Nicolson’s captivating little work, a masterpiece of color, keen observation, and laconic wit, deserves a new life.
Banville is author of The Sea.

Donna Tartt

Blood in the Parlor, by Dorothy Dunbar

My mother has had this book since I was a little girl, but no one else I know has ever heard of it, and it’s almost impossible to find. Each of the 12 stories is an account of a 19th-century murder told with a light, macabre sense of humor. I’d love to see it back in print with illustrations by Edward Gorey.
Tartt is the author of The Secret History.

Rick Moody

Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, by Ben Watson

I really like books in which interpretation seems to be fused with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and this massive, 600-page analysis of the work of one of popular music’s true iconoclasts certainly exhibits the full spectrum of symptoms. It manages to include Freudian, Marxian, even Derridean perspectives, while taking on both the well-known Zappa works as well as the tricky, somewhat indefensible later efforts.
Moody is the author of The Diviners.

Jonathan Ames

The Lunatic at Large, by J. Storer Clouston

It’s wonderfully hilarious and the originator, I believe, of the word bonkers. I had someone write to the OED advancing my theory, but I’m not sure what’s come of it.
Ames is the author of Wake Up, Sir!

Nathan Englander

Gob’s Grief, by Chris Adrian

It’s a Civil War novel. And a Walt Whitman novel. And a feminist novel. It’s a dead-brother novel and a fantasy novel and a thousand other things. It’s also deeply sincere. You can still hunt down copies online, and I highly recommend that you do.
Englander is the author of The Ministry of Special Cases.

Tom Bissell

Invasion of the Space Invaders, by Martin Amis

This is Amis’s startling aria to stand-up console video games: Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc. He published it early in his career and has never allowed it back into print. This might be expected, given that in the book he blames the machines for his inability to find any girlfriends.
Bissell is the author of The Father of All Things.

Colum McCann

Fup, by Jim Dodge

The less said about it, the better.
McCann is the author of Dancer.

George Pelecanos

Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter

Carpenter’s masterpiece, long out of print, is the definitive juvenile-delinquency novel and a damning indictment of our justice system that is still relevant today.
Pelecanos is the author of The Night Gardener.

Susan Choi

The Wars, by Timothy Findley

To say it’s one of the greatest books about the Great War ever written unfairly limits the scope of its greatness. It’s a magnificent book. The fact that it’s not in print in this country is simply bizarre.
Choi is the author of A Person of Interest.

Porochista Khakpour

Royal Stable Words, by Will Oldham

A beautiful blue-canvas-bound book—printed on an old treadle-driven letterpress—of select lyrics from Oldham and his many alter egos. To someone who doesn’t even know the music, it’s still an exquisite book of beautifully jagged free verse.
Khakpour is the author of Sons and OtherFlammable Objects.

Ned Vizzini

The Assistant, by Robert Walser

A hundred years ahead of its time in the drollness category—to ward off a debt collector, the main character tells him that he is “absolutely unavailable to speak with any person desiring to collect money.” I think Walser will get canonized like Robert Bolaño soon.
Vizzini is the author of It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

Ed Park

The Marceau Case, by Harry Stephen Keeler

This 1936 book is a hilarious blast of cablegrams, photos, newspaper columns, and other diverse material—some of it beautifully irrelevant to the story at hand, about the mysterious slaying of a man on an immaculate lawn. The solution is outrageous and mind-boggling. I’ve never read a book like it, unless it’s the sequel, X. Jones—of Scotland Yard, which takes the same formula and lifts it into even dizzier realms.
Park is the author of Personal Days.

Matthew Sharpe

The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington

A well-meaning husband in Alice Munro’s short story “Cortes Island,” faced with a noisome crone, jokingly asks his young wife, “What is the point of old women anyway?” Acting out that grim homily is the family of Marian Leatherby, the 92-year-old protagonist of Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet. She wrote The Hearing Trumpet half a century ago, and is now a year younger than its protagonist. Even when the plot turns grim, the prose is jaunty, a sign of its author’s reveling in her own perverse imagination.

Sharpe is the author of Jamestown

Tao Lin

Color of Darkness, James Purdy

To me it’s the earliest “version” of the kind of writing termed “K-mart realism” in the late ’70s to mid-’80s (Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie, etc.). Yet he is not ever cited as an influence by any of those people.

Lin is author of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Sheila Heti

The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector

On page two, our brutal narrator, Rodrigo S.M., writes, “Happiness? I have never come across a more foolish word, invented by all those unfortunate girls from north-eastern Brazil.” He tells the story of one of them—but the book is as much about Rodrigo thinking and writing as it is about this ugly, stupid, poor girl’s fate. The book is 96 pages and should be read as I first read it: all in one sitting, in a dreary bar where one is a stranger, when all one’s friends are out of town.

Heti is author of Ticknor