Fun question from Reddit! Have to think back what this would be for me…
Okay I thought of a few
This one is a sort of experimental compilation of constrained writing…somewhere between anthology and strange self-referential encyclopedia:
This is a cool zine-like book about NYC booksellers:
And this is a really interesting, detailed hypothetical description of sort of communist / anarchist social structure:
I always get a kick from being the first person to create an entry for a book at goodreads - I realize this likely comes from the fact that some french publishing houses are not connected to whatever it is that feeds ISBN into amazon/goodreads, but it’s fun nonetheless.
Totally get that! Always kind of a cool feeling to find something unusual in a used bookstore and realize there’s essentially no public online info available. I’ve tried adding data e.g. in Goodreads a couple times though I admit I haven’t made it a habit.
I do have mixed feelings about Goodreads leveraging so much free crowdsourced data from users, I think they have a whole program called something like “Goodreads Librarians” — I get how this may have originally been a cool authentic community thing early on, but now that they’re owned by one of the world’s most valuable companies, feels a bit weird spending time making their data better. Though I do find the platform really useful!
I’m a lot more excited about Open Library when it comes to contributing data, given their mission and nonprofit status (a project of Internet Archive) but kind of a chicken and egg problem…as it stands they’re way behind with both data and UX and it can be kind of a challenge to actually make useful contributions.
Okay, this book is technically not the most obscure one I’ve read, but of the obscure ones, it’s by far my favorite, and I won’t miss a chance to shoehorn a glowing rec of it into any thread it’ll fit in: Voyages to the Moon, by Marjorie Hope Nicolson.
Here’s my review, copy/pasted from a newsletter email back in January, if you’ll forgive all the text:
My favorite Christmas gift this year? Voyages to the Moon, a 1948 exploration of humanity’s millennia-long obsession with visiting the moon, written by Dr. Marjorie Hope Nicolson (the first woman to be a Columbia University grad school professor, according to her Wikipedia page).
I have to admit that the fact that this book is a deep cut is part of why I love it. I first found it in college when I was idly searching the library’s database for interesting books and looked up “moon.” I actually had to retrace that exact search to find the book when putting together my Christmas wish list this last year. Glad my college library database is online.
Anyway, the book’s packed with details about some truly bonkers fiction: Attempts at reaching the moon include artificial wings, ships powered by hot air balloons, vials of morning dew strapped to one’s body, and magnetism. Once on the moon, explorers have found lunar coppersmiths, demons, and, on one occasion, the Bird Emperor.
Nicholson delivers it all with a pleasantly bone-dry academic tone that honestly improves the fact that she’s talking about Baron Munchausen climbing a bean stalk to the moon or whatever. She’s funny, too. Here’s Nicholson on a book about traveling to the moon by the “harnessing of birds,” anonymously written about a hundred years after that form of fictional moon travel fell out of favor: “Posterity has continued to preserve the anonymity of that author more zealously than he might have wished.” Fuck 'im up, Nicholson!
There’s not a lot about the book online. Kirkus gives it muted praise in its review. “An obscure, somewhat esoteric interest is here given comprehensive, interesting coverage, in a learned, scholarly thesis,” it says. Then it ends with a diss of a two-word sentence: “Limited appeal.”
In my view, the narrow scope of the book is what make it so fascinating and should broaden the appeal. Besides, the topic says a lot about humanity’s relationship with fiction. The moon is the most popular pan-cultural fantasy land ever, since it has been highly visible yet inaccessible to every civilization on Earth for all of history. It attracts a lot of satirists, from the second century’s Lucien to Cyrano de Bergerac to Jonathon Swift, who all poked fun at then-current politics or scientific discoveries.
Here’s a review that I like better, from an anonymous 2016 Amazon customer:
“A classic that ought to be much better known than it is. Meticulously researched, extremely scholarly, yet totally fluid and accessible, this book summarizes accounts of space travel and aviation prior to the invention of the balloon in the late 1700s. Includes well-known sources such as Lucian of Samosata, Kepler, and Godwin as well as many more obscure works.”
Anyway, that’s my book recommendation for 2019. It costs around 20 bucks on Abe Books at the moment.
Wow @Adam that book sounds incredible Definitely going to look for that.
I will truly read anything!
This is so good! (The writeup I mean; the book I had certainly not heard of before!) Thanks for sharing, perfect antilibrary encapsulation. Sounds hilarious and awesome.
Haha that’s great. I can’t think of any really good book discovery stories of my own, but I definitely get a small thrill when I feel like I’m “rediscovering” a decades old book on a shelf or buried in a bibliography somewhere. Not even so much because I like old / rare books per se, but almost like “good for you, book, despite all the challenges posed by the flow of time, you have endured!”
Yeah what an amazing write up!! I love the moon.
My most obscure book is The Lost Art Of Steam Heating, which I found in a used bookstore (shoutout Unnameable Books). It’s about radiators. I know what you’re thinking—why were you reading a technical manual about radiators? Well this is much more than a technical manual, it was one guy waxing poetic about the amazing properties of steam, historic radiator design and innovation through history, and his experiences going into all kinds of old homes to fix up steam systems. Did you know that steam heating has been around since the civil war and some of those systems still work to this day? Also if the pressure in your radiator is set up wrong it can explode from its mountings, eject itself from its building and fly into the air, finally landing a few blocks away? Anyway I was just amazed how the author could be so passionate about such a mundane thing that he’d write an entire book about it, and his enthusiasm would still blaze through every page. Also features some great clip-art style illustrations.
This is some Jason-Bourne-taking-out-an-assassin level knowledge.