Maybe it’s the book you rescued from a yard sale, or the one you left abandoned on a shelf for years because the cover was awful. Maybe it’s one that was mis-shelved at the library right between two of your favorites, and you found yourself looking at it on a whim. Maybe you happened to hear two people randomly mention it within a few days of each other and then saw a copy on a friend’s coffee table.
Sometimes the best books are the ones we almost never read.
It’s definitely true in the publishing world that many of the most legendary classics are books that almost never saw the light of day…
Poems by Emily Dickinson, discovered after her death.
An unusually fat grade-school novel by an unknown writer rejected 12 times in a row (Harry Potter).
A quirky little picture book about some tea-drinking bunnies that was self-published because no one else wanted it (Peter Rabbit).
Even Moby Dick reportedly sold only 50 copies during Melville’s lifetime.
If you’ve ever read a book by Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, James Patterson, Madeleine L’Engle, Louis L’Amour, Dr. Seuss, or Margaret Mitchell, you’ve met an author in those pages whose books narrowly escaped dying in a dresser drawer, unpublished. And it’s not just fluff fiction: books by Chinua Achebe, E.E. Cummings, Jack Kerouac, William Golding, Alice Walker, James Joyce, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Yann Martel have been insulted, misunderstood, and unceremoniously shot down time and again. And some that were printed in the author’s lifetime moldered on the bookstore shelves until the writer was dead and gone for decades (ever heard of Jane Austen?)
Aspiring writers often moan about the devilish catch-22 of getting anything published without platform when platform is so hard to achieve if you haven’t been published. But our problem is hardly new to the internet age. (Joseph Heller himself felt it, too.) Loads of manuscripts pile up on publishers’ desks, and the poor guys/gals have to sort through the Pulitzers and the drivel without the help of a crystal ball. They’re searching for the needle in a papery haystack.
At Blackwell’s in Oxford, I saw a great display of books wrapped in brown paper with just a handwritten teaser on the front. “Wildly imaginative story about a shipwreck, a tiger, and the meaning of life.” “One victim, a dozen suspects, all stranded on a luxury train in a blizzard.” “A puzzle book written in exquisite prose, perfect for fans of so-and-so.” What a super idea! Pick the book blind, not for its reputation or its famous author or its fancy cover art; let it speak on its own terms.
Last year my reading resolution was to review the books I read (on Goodreads, Amazon, wherever). What if next year’s reading resolution went something like this: for every book I read because I already know and love the author I’ll try one by someone unknown? For every bestseller I’ll browse the shelves for one I’ve never heard of?
What if we don’t let the big shots in New York dictate what we’ll read this year, but look for the treasure in the brown paper bag?
You can click on my Want-to-Read pile at Goodreads for some inspiration if you want. But I’m on the lookout, too, so give me your best suggestions below. What’s a book we’ve never heard of that you know we’d all love?
What’s the best book you almost never read?
Photo on Visual hunt