Books At The Back Of The Shelf



Hopefully you’ll find ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ a new twist on the unearth-an-old-book idea, but I’m not the first to dig into the shelves and find gems.  In ‘Books To Die For’, John Connolly and Declan Burke worked their way through some marvellous novels that have been overlooked.

The murder mystery has an enduring appeal because we desire to understand human nature, and the best don’t provide perfectly neat solutions. Burke and Connolly’s hefty volume is no mere kill list but something subtler; a way of seeing some great crime novels from the past through the eyes of modern masters. 121 writers picked their favourite reads, and while their selection is more quirky than definitive they act as excellent guides through the complex Venn diagram of criminality, espionage, femmes fatales, serial killers, gumshoes, academics, private dicks, police procedurals and every other type of crime novel imaginable.

Many of the choices don’t occupy space in bookshops and need hunting down, but it’s a strong and surprising selection, from the eerie and utterly English ‘Tiger In The Smoke’ to the shamefully underrated ‘A Stranger In My Grave’. There’ll be anguish about who’s missing (no Gladys Mitchell, no R Austin Freeman) and a few choices are arguable (Douglas Adams) but there’s enough here to keep addicts intrigued for a year at least.

Andy Miller’s ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ is a delightfully funny trawl through the shelves, with Andy taking on the task of reading all the books he had on his shelves that he’d never got around to tackling (we’re all guilty of that). There are books I know I’ll never read. Life is simply too short for them.

But there are many I should have read, or read at the wrong age (like ‘War and Peace’, which I was too young to appreciate), so I graduated toward popular fiction, leaving my knowledge of classic literature with gaping holes. I never managed to finish ‘Jane Eyre’, which failed to speak to me, or the nigh-unreadable ‘Moby Dick’, which suffers the worst excesses of entangled American phrasing, but my 20th century English and European knowledge is good and I’ll settle for not going back to the 19th century unless to reread my beloved Dickens.

One trick recommended to make prose stick is to read it aloud. Skimming flattens the intention and can spoil prose completely. Hopefully I’ve struck a balance with ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’, where readability is one of the key factors I looked for. Most unreadable book?

12 comments on “Books At The Back Of The Shelf”

  1. brooke says:

    would you mind jump starting thinking by listing some categories, e.g. most unreadable best seller that no one has actually read.

  2. Chris Webb says:

    Being a bit of a numbers geek I wonder how many novels have been published in Britain over the years and centuries. In theory the British Library should have them all, and should be able to answer the question. Must be hundreds of thousands, most of them forgotten, and certainly on a scale no one person could get even a general overview of.

    It’s a pity you couldn’t get through Jane Eyre, although I can understand that it is very difficult to read fiction without some notion of the background and context.

    It is to a significant degree a commentary on the standing of women at the time, and should be read in the context of early feminist thought from people like Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill. The social commentary side of all the Brontë sisters is not a million miles away from that of Dickens, although with a very different perspective.

    btw -Mary W. is buried in St Pancras Old Church churchyard. One of the few surviving gravestones but still looking very shabby these days. She deserves better.

  3. Trace Turner says:

    Many years ago I set out to read Remembrance of Things Past and got through 3 1/2 of the 7 volumes and decided that if nothing actually happened in the first half then it was unlikely the second half would be worth the effort. That experience made me wary of large “classic” books like Moby Dick and War and Peace It also stopped me from feeling like I had to finish a book if I started it.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I feel your pain, Trace. I started on Remembrance of Things Past and may have managed a half dozen pages before I gave up. I’ve started Moby Dick several times and just can’t get into it. War and Peace on the other hand I really enjoyed, but it is quite a while since I read it and maybe I should try again now that I have a better grasp of Russian history and culture than I had then. (I will just murmur the name Gormenghast very quietly. Hush, nothing to see here, just move along.) Anna Karenina I think I decided I didn’t want to bother with because I decided she wasn’t worth my time. I probably should go back to Dickens for the same reason as War and Peace.
    There have been several book recommends here lately and I would like to express thanks for introducing me to Octavia Butler. I have just finished Kindred and think it’s the best portrayal of the experience of being enslaved I’ve ever read. I have the Wells short stories yet to go and I’ll say thanks for that, too, in advance.

  5. Debra Matheney says:

    War and Peace was amazing and Anna Karenina is one of my favorites, this from the most unromantic person you will ever meet. The translation makes all the difference. My all time favorite piece of literature is Tom Jones, very out of fashion but such a lovely romp.
    I subscribe to Slightly Foxed, a quarterly, with delightful essays on “forgotten” works of literature. The publish out of Hoxton. Check them out.

  6. Jo W says:

    I can honestly say that I finished Jane Eyre. I had too,it was a set reading book in our English Literature syllabus. But I must admit that was the only reason. 😉

  7. Jo W says:

    Oops,that should be had to. I appear to have developed a stutter in my finger. 🙁

  8. Rh says:

    Finnegans Wake, no contest!

  9. brooke says:

    @ Helen– Try Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

    @Chris Webb– Jane Eyre is arguably one of the best coming of age novels of the English language. It’s a child’s view of the “world,” and the hard choices a powerless child/young woman confronts. And Bronte doesn’t flinch in exposing the spiritual contradictions that young people face in discovering and coming to terms with who they are. Definitely on my list of readable books, especially read aloud.

  10. Vivienne says:

    Remembrance of Things Past took several attempts but it’s worth it. The first book, in the end, seems to be only one sentence with diversions. Moby Dick is my non starter and Don Quixote. Also TomSawyer has me stuck, as does Little Women, despite my being one of four sisters.

    Have now also got to the age where the books on my shelves increasingly reproach me for having bought and not read them. I am working on a system. But then, Books to Die For sounds tempting and would lead me astray again.

  11. Rebecca Coday says:

    I’ve been participating in a Reading Challenge this year with a group of friends. The idea is to read by choosing a book from each of forty categories listed and stretch our reading habits. So far, I have a lot of DNF’s (Did Not Finish) because there are many dreadful books out there.

    Constantly surprising DNF’s are the ones that are highly lauded and recommended. For example: Housekeeping, Century of November and All the Light We Cannot See, the later I have tried to read twice now. Most surprisingly enjoyed category? Steampunk.

    Under Paying Guests I wrote, “Could have been a better story in half of the 600 plus words.” By Atonement I wrote, “Suffers from excess verbiage and I don’t buy into that girl being nine years old, she in no way talks, nor acts like a nine year old.”

    Jane Steele, which cleverly reconstructs Jane Eyre as a gal that won’t take any crap, becomes a serial killer…of a sort. Read it, you’ll see. Highly recommend this very satisfying version of Jane.

    BTW: Currently reading Little Boy Found. Which is doing a good job of keeping me wondering…

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Brooke – I’ll certainly look for Butler’s Parable… and whatever else there is near by.
    I’m beginning to see interesting themes in our posts. Dated attitudes seem to be problematic as in Little Women, which I think would be of the “I just want to smack them up alongside the head” category for most modern people, unless you have sociological interests. I have a biography of Alcott and she was from a very strange group indeed. Moby Dick is also strange and I wonder if it’s original appeal was that it was so very different from most available fiction at the time.

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