Seven Books Nobody’s Talking About

From the pillow book of Sei Shōnagon to the aphorisms of Chamfort, from a celebration of cricket to a meditation on laundry, a holiday gift list for hard-to-surprise readers.

The Media Age Through a Gimlet Eye

Within the Context of No Context by George W. S. Trow (1943–2006) is an elegant, astonishing polemic that explores the infectious malaise of the television epoch with fierce insight, savage humor, and ruthless focus; it remains relevant—even revelatory — in the era of the internet. As novelist John Irving put it, Trow’s book “is essential reading for anyone interested in the demise, the terminal silliness, of our culture.”

Sense and Sensibility in Tenth-Century Japan

While Europe still cowered in the shadows of the so-called Dark Ages, a vibrant literary culture flourished at the court of the Japanese emperor in the capital city of Heian-kyo (the urban ancestor of present-day Kyoto). And although Japan had begun a period of isolation that would last nearly a thousand years, the Heian era (784–1185) produced two works that would earn a place among the masterpieces of world literature. While many readers know Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, a classic of Japanese literature, fewer are familiar with its contemporary, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a work captivatingly original in form and content.

A One-Volume Library of Culture and Melancholy

Although Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) is generally regarded as Italy’s finest poet after Dante, his prose writing has a genius all its own, especially his Operette Morali (“Moral Essays”). These pieces, often composed in dialogue form, are witty, philosophic, and strangely invigorating elaborations of the theme that happiness is impossible anywhere in the universe. Leopardi’s early life was enriched but largely circumscribed by his father’s ten-thousand-volume library, and his cloistered coming-of-age, combined with persistent illness, contributed to a disillusioned maturity. Yet despite his pervasive melancholy, encounters with Leopardi’s work prove a tonic for restive souls; reading it can be like talking to one’s best self, finding solace in the life lessons only solitude has the savvy to admit.

How to Live Decently

Although steeped in the world of Anthony Trollope, Shirley Robin Letwin’s curious and uncategorizable book, The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct, is not a study of the work of that novelist per se. Rather, the vast canvas of Trollope’s novels provides Letwin (1924–1993) with the raw material for what is in actuality a philosophical study, one that blessedly exhibits in abundance a quality absent from most such works: a resonance that rings true with our experience of the world. There is no need to be conversant with Trollope’s fiction to follow Letwin’s thought (although, having followed it, you’re unlikely not to want to sample at least a volume or two). And there is no need to be put off by her subject on grounds of gender: “The most perfect gentleman in Trollope’s novels,” writes Letwin, “is Madame Max Goesler.”

Maxims from Revolutionary France

On the Playing Fields of Trinidad

Beyond a Boundary by C. L. R. James (1901–1989) is one of the best and most surprising sports books a reader can discover. Best, because it evokes, with wit and great style, the spell of awe, action, facts, and figures a game can cast over a boyhood, thereby informing a fan’s spirit for a lifetime; surprising because its subject is cricket and its author was a Marxist revolutionary of enormous intellectual sophistication and ardent political convictions, a pioneer of the modern African liberation movement.

The Soul of Laundry

If only our habits were holy, every minute would illuminate our book of hours. And yet, the necessities that nag our days blot the progress of our thoughts and praise; they’re intractable obstacles between the soul and the consolation it always means to seek. But since the spirit, left to its own devices, knows no certainty in its method of sublime pursuit, perhaps we’d serve it better by concentrating on the work at hand, finding in our daily tasks not the definition of our selves but the grace that can reach us through what Kathleen Norris calls “the quotidian mysteries.” I guarantee that her marvelous and surprising book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work, will be the most life-enhancing essay on household chores you’ll ever read. It’s personal, playful, profound, and provocative.

Adapted, with the exception of the paragraph on The Quotidian Mysteries, from 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader.

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