September 1, 2007


How did we miss these?: Far from the fame and glamour of the Booker and bestsellers is a forgotten world of literary treasures - brilliant but underrated novels that deserve a second chance to shine. We asked 50 celebrated writers to nominate their favourites. (Introduction by Robert McCrum, September 2, 2007, Observer)

The afterlife of books and writers is an enthralling subject full of strange vicissitudes and unintended consequences, as even the most cursory reflection on the life and reputation of Shakespeare suggests. It's also a story of forgotten bestsellers, fashionable names swept into oblivion and overlooked figures growing in posthumous stature. The underexplored fact of literary life is that most books fail, in at least two ways. First, they do not live up to their authors' high expectations. Writers who are honest concede that most typescripts represent the wreck of a grander, just partially fulfilled idea. Second, the majority of books fall stillborn from the press, never living up to their authors' hopes for recognition or dreams of a large, admiring audience. So those bestseller lists and crowded festival appearances create a misleading impression of the true circumstances of literary life. For every book that tickles public taste, captures the zeitgeist and hits the jackpot, there are thousands that do not appeal to contemporary readers, fail to find a sufficient audience and almost disappear.

Almost, but not quite. In this literary twilight zone, you'll find passionate readers who keep candles burning for much-loved and half-forgotten favourites. These underrated novels are the books they might have read as children, teenagers or in rare and unforgettable circumstances. All of which underlines the fact that reading is a solitary pleasure and a private passion: books that seem to speak only to you are, in some ways, the most treasured. In this context, underrated might be another way of identifying 'the best book you've never read'. In any event, at the opening of the autumn season, when so much attention is paid to the presentation and promotion of new books, it's sobering to be reminded that, in the longer run, it's the work that counts as much as the life. [...]

Michael Chabon

The Long Ships (1941-45)

Frans Gunnar Bengtsson

I personally guarantee that, however infinitesimally, the world would be a happier place if this wonderful novel, in its excellent English translation by Michael Meyer, were restored to print. A tale of Viking adventure set in the 10th century, what makes The Long Ships such a delicious book is not its thrilling escapes, battles and rescues, nor its lifelike, morally ambiguous heroes and villains, but the droll, astringent, sly tone taken by the narrator toward the characters, particularly with regard to their relations to God, gold and sex. It's a world classic of the literature of adventure, on a par with The Three Musketeers and The Odyssey, its avowed models. [...]

Ian Rankin

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)

James Hogg

Barmy and scary and predating Jekyll and Hyde. And written by a shepherd who barely read any books. A Scottish classic, a world classic, yet hardly anyone, writers excepted, has actually read it. [...]

Jonathan Coe

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1975)

David Nobbs

Many people think that this is a novelisation of the famous 1970s sitcom. But the book came first; what's more, it stands as a fine work in its own right, and remains the best, sharpest, funniest and saddest account of a mid-life meltdown I have ever read. The elegance and moral seriousness of the novel has, to a large extent, been overshadowed by the success of the TV version; but in my view it's one of the few novels from the 1970s which deserves the status of a modern classic.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 1, 2007 9:00 PM

I read the James Hogg book, along with works by a lot of other relatively unknown Scottish authors, in a Scottish literature class I took while I was at Edinburgh University. One of the best courses I ever took. I particularly enjoyed reading that book, living in a city with more churches per square mile than any other European city. Churches founded by shards of shards of various Calvinist sects.

Posted by: Twn at September 2, 2007 9:21 AM

The Long Ships is a treat. I give it my highest recommendation.

Posted by: John Weidner at September 2, 2007 9:33 AM