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.
Incredible thread with all kinds of amazing obscure books, rare to see a giant list of 50+ books almost all of which I’d never even heard of, this does not disappoint!
Highlights include a book of Coleridge marginalia, Vietnamese poetry, speculative zoology, graphic novel about walking, anthology of fantastic literature, publishing history…
This thread is so good! My pick would be Yamaha’s handbook on Sound Reinforcement There seems to be an online copy here: https://bgaudioclub.org/uploads/docs/Yamaha_Sound_Reinforcement_Handbook_2nd_Edition_Gary_Davis_Ralph_Jones.pdf
One I got recommended recently is a monograph on Snowflakes: https://arxiv.org/abs/1910.06389
Somewhere I have a copy of that Yamaha handbook, @eshnil, it’s actually something like the bible for live sound engineers - although I can’t say I’ve read it! I have leafed through it some, but apparently my interest in live sound (or ability to grasp the incredibly technical contents) was not sufficient to allow me to endure . . .
Y’all must be my people, hanging out on a thread like this! It’s hard for me to gauge obscurity or weirdness, but I’ll give it a shot. Here’s a list from what’s in the room with me right now:
Being and Vibration by Joseph Rael - I love this book so much. I first read it when I was simultaneously reading about quantum physics and Kabbalah (Rabbi David Cooper’s God Is a Verb) and it was right in tune with those books. From the back cover:
“From human breath and heartbeat to the pulsating energies of subatomic particles, to the expansion and contraction of stars, vibration is all that exists. Native Americans have understood this for generations; a knowledge embodied in their language and daily life. ‘We live,’ says Joseph Rael, a mystic of Pueblo and Ute heritage, ‘in the House of Shattering Light, a place where reality, which is timeless and eternal, is cut into slices perceptible to our senses.’ Rael shares the mystical teachings of his people as he guides the reader toward a profound awareness of what it means to be part of a living universe.”
A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller - I haven’t finished this book yet, but McClintock is amazing and Keller is up to the task of telling her remarkable story. Winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of genetic transposition, McClintock seems to have gotten even more flak for being a mystic than for being a woman in her field. None of her peers disagreed with her findings, they just didn’t like the way she described her relationship with what she was studying. I found my way to this book from the less obscure but nonetheless remarkable Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Stephen Harrod Buhner.
The PK Man by Jeffrey Mishlove, Ph.D. (that being the only Ph.D. in Parapsychology ever awarded by the University of California) - If you know Jeffrey Mishlove from his Thinking Allowed TV series, you’ll appreciate the depth of his intelligence and sensitivity. This book will test the limits of your epistemology. It tested mine, and I pride myself on its health and flexibility. After Mishlove’s endeavoring and failing to be able to work with Ted Owens as a research subject, Dr. John E. Mack writes in the foreword to the book, " One evening late in December 1985, Ted Owens phoned Jeffrey Mishlove to warn him in an angry voice that the U.S. government must cancel the next space shuttle flight. ‘This is the most important call you will ever receive,’ Owens said, ‘The S.I.s (Space Intelligences) really mean business. They will destroy the shuttle. It’s up to you to prevent it.’ A month later, on January 28, 1986, Mishlove was ‘shaken to my bones’ when the Challenger space shuttle exploded, killing its seven crew members, including thirty-seven-year-old teacher Christa McAuliffe. ‘I realized that I had been ignoring Owens too long,’ Mishlove writes in this remarkable story."
Albemarle County in Virginia: Giving some account of what it was by nature, of what it was made by man, and of some of the men who made it. by Rev. Edgar Woods - Of course, this is less obscure locally, but even in Albemarle County only well known amongst the historical/Virginiana crowd.
I have long been fascinated with the early roads of Albemarle County, some of which are also among the earliest European roads in North America. The difference between the graceless intrusion of Interstate 64 as it cuts its broad swath across the Blue Ridge and descends into Albemarle is quite in contrast to the organic meanderings of the earliest roads as they wend their ways along creeks and through passes in the foothills. Roads made before the advent of steam or internal combustion embody a deep respect for the landscape that has since for the most part been lost.
Woods includes an account of a question put to locally legendary surveyor David Stockton (whose initials on an ancient tree served as bearing for property deeds in one part of the county for hundreds of years), asking how he had managed to find such a level path through one half of the county for a particular road. Stockton’s response was that he hadn’t found it himself, he had just made use of a path established by buffalo.
Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels by Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier - this book is a brilliant technical manual for an enlightened approach to stream restoration that is also a joy to read. At least it was for me. I still long to put these principles to work but the stars have not yet aligned for that task. Less abstract than A Pattern Language, but I think in tune with the spirit of that book. From the publisher:
“By ‘thinking like a creek,’ one can harness the regenerative power of floods to reshape stream banks and rebuild floodplains along gullied stream channels. Induced Meandering is an artful blend of the natural sciences – geomorphology, hydrology and ecology – which govern channel forming processes. Induced Meandering directly challenges the dominant paradigm of river and creek stabilization by promoting the intentional erosion of selected banks while fostering deposition of eroded materials on an evolving floodplain. The river self-heals as the growth of native riparian vegetation accelerates the meandering process.”
Thanks and sorry for the delay checking these out. This list is awesome!
I think the only ones I’d heard of already are A Feeling for the Organism and Plant Intelligence, which both look great / in my antilibrary. Semi-obscure science history, weird ecology…love these sorts of books.
Love this, sounds like a really interesting history.
Really like the sound of this one too! Making me think about how great the genre “technical but can’t quite tell if it’s a textbook” can be. Like the sort of book that clearly could function as a textbook, yet is suffused with more humor, verve, strangeness, whatever.
Even better when it’s a niche enough topic that I probably would never find it in the average bookstore or algorithmic recommendations anywhere, let alone a best-of list. Something special about having a few books where you’re pretty sure you’re the only one you know to have read it!