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


Last spring, we asked a number of writers to name their most favorite obscure book. The piece proved so popular that, well, here we are doing it again. Below, a new batch of scribes and their beloved literary arcana.

David Remnick: Moscow Petushki, by Venedikt Erofeev

The comic high-water mark of the Brezhnev era (or what I hope will one day be known as the Solzhenitsyn-Brodsky era) is Venedikt Erofeev’s book, Moscow Petushki. Erofeev’s vodka-sodden classic is an account of one broken man’s attempt to get from here to there in an era of absolute societal rot. It’s the funniest thing in Russian since Ilf and Petrov.

Remnick is editor of The New Yorker and author of Lenin’s Tomb

Susan Orlean: I, an Actor, by Nicholas Craig

I was once stuck in Thimphu, Bhutan. I wandered into the only bookstore in the town, where most of the books were in Dzongkha or Hindi, plus a few dusty English-language selections. There, tucked between Bollywood-celeb bios and fly-specked editions of As You Like It, was a slim little book by Nicholas Craig. I had no idea what it was, but it looked interesting and I bought it for the nickel or so that it cost. It turned out to be utterly hilarious, a crazed parody of self-importance and vanity that predated the likes of Steve Coogan and some of Sacha Baron Cohen’s finer concoctions.

Orlean is the author of The Orchid Thief

Shalom Auslander: The Trouble With Being Born, by E.M. Cioran

You know how when your friend phones and says he wants to go out, so you’re like, “OK,” and you get to some pub somewhere, and you sit down at the bar, and he just starts going off on everything—life, mankind, justice, fate—and you’re like, “Dude, you’re being extremely negative,” but then you keep listening because you’ve already paid for the drinks, and after a few minutes, a cold chill goes down your spine, and you realize, “Oh shit, he’s fucking right?” That’s what this is like, but for 300 pages.

Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament

Robert Pinsky: Caelica, by Fulke Greville

The greatest poet unknown to many readers—comparable in force of imagination to John Donne, an approximate contemporary of William Shakespeare—was an upper-class Englishman with a funny name: Fulke Greville. His sequence of poems, Caelica, begins with conventional-love lyrics twisted and exploded by a mighty and peculiar intelligence. The love poems grow darker as the sequence progresses (“All my senses, like beacon’s flame/Gave alaraum to desire”), and in the last 20 or 30 poems, the passion is religious and moral: “You that seek what life is in death/Now find it air, that once was breath.”

Pinsky is the author of Gulf Music

Harold Bloom: Little, Big, by John Crowley

A neglected masterpiece. The closest achievement we have to the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll.

Bloom is the editor of American Religious Poems

Joseph O’Neill: Brilliant Orange, by David Winner

A wonderful cultural history of Dutch soccer. Total football; the Jews of Amsterdam; the neuroses of the national team; the shared spatial awareness of Dutch footballers and Dutch visual artists; the wisdom of Johnny Rep—these and other arcana are covered by this breezy classic of soccer writing.

O’Neill is the author of Netherland

Hannah Tinti: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, adapted by Nicki Greenberg

I was recently in Australia. While I was there, I heard about a graphic-novel version of The Great Gatsby that had been published by Allen & Unwin, but was apparently banned in the rest of the world—some sort of disagreement with the estate. I was expecting a straight adaptation, but what the illustrator, Nicki Greenberg, did was quite surprising and also wonderful: The characters are not human—they are strange creatures. Nick is some kind of tadpole/lizard/frog; Daisy is an exotic bird/cottonball; Gatsby is a seahorse. The drawings are sepia-toned, and set like photographs on black paper in an album. It is a marvelous reinterpretation of the book.

Tinti is the author of The Good Thief

Stephen L. Carter: In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell

A collection of essays, all of them written with Russell’s usual verve, but the title essay is a tour de force. What he criticized in the age he was describing—in particular, the need for constant stimulation and to be constantly in touch—is applicable all the more powerfully to the present world. Russell believed that leisurely reflection was the key to clear thought. We could use more of both.

Carter is the author of New England White

Ethan Hawke: And There Was Light, by Jacques Lusseyran

One of the most powerful memoirs I’ve ever encountered. Jacques was a blind, Catholic, 14-year-old leader in the French Resistance, and a concentration-camp survivor. His experience is thrilling, horrible, honest, spiritually profound, and utterly full of joy.

Hawke is the author of Ash Wednesday

Alan Furst: Sad Missions, by Menahem Bader

I have read quite a lot of Holocaust literature, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Bader worked from Istanbul, and the book is a firsthand account of clandestine and open operations to try and save European Jews, from 1938 to 1945. The author is hard on the Czechs, extremely hard on British diplomats, and hard on politicians in Palestine supposedly working to save Jews, especially Jewish children.

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.

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