What are some highly regarded books that have faded into obscurity?
October 4, 2020 11:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in non-fiction books written maybe between 1970-2000. For example, I just picked up The Unconscious Civilization, which won awards and popular acclaim in its time, but which I've never heard anyone refer to in the past 20 years. (and which has a total of 27 reviews on Amazon)

I have two motivations for this: first, many of my old books seem fresher and more relevant today compared to Trump Bad #597 on the bestseller lists. Second, I have a weird melancholy feeling towards the books that I will never even encounter, representing a great deal of important human thought, just because they are old and drowned out by the new.
posted by mikek to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
 
From 1987, James Gleick's Chaos: Making A New Science was really good, but the buzz around chaos theory has pretty much completely faded out of the mainstream. There'll be an occasional mention of the butterfly effect, but not much else - compared to when people proudly had posters of the Mandelbrot set on their walls!

The book itself is a really good example of popular science; it uses character studies of the leading thinkers, theorists and experimenters to gently lead you through what the new science was all about, and what was new and different about it. It's one of the science books which I have most enjoyed reading and rereading.
posted by vincebowdren at 2:24 AM on October 5 [16 favorites]


Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? Very big and influential in the 1970s and 1980s on writers like Philip K Dick, Neal Stephenson, Alan Moore etc, nominated for awards etc, and yet something I'd be surprised to hear a reference to now (and which I don't think is necessarily outdated per se).
posted by Hartster at 2:37 AM on October 5 [21 favorites]


The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe was sufficiently well known travel bible back in the 1970s for Douglas Adams to joke about it. Wanting to explore Europe but broke? This told you how.
posted by rongorongo at 3:36 AM on October 5 [5 favorites]


You could probably throw a dart at the list of winners of the National Book Award for non-fiction or the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and come up with any number of candidates, especially if you include finalists as well as winners.
posted by Johnny Assay at 3:37 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? Very big and influential in the 1970s and 1980s on writers like Philip K Dick, Neal Stephenson, Alan Moore etc, nominated for awards etc, and yet something I'd be surprised to hear a reference to now (and which I don't think is necessarily outdated per se).

Had a bit of a resurgence because of Westworld though as it was clearly an inspiration for the original 1973 and there are clear references to some of its ideas.
posted by atrazine at 4:02 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


This will include earlier nonfiction books (to about 1900) but I read a lot of the stuff put out by NYRB press which reissues forgotten 20th century classics (and occasionally earlier). I've read dozens and dozens and only occasionally got one that wasn't super interesting.
posted by Hypatia at 4:48 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


If your 1970 cutoff is a maybe rather than a bright line, I recommend The Tyranny of Words (1938) and The Hidden Persuaders (1957). I'm completely convinced that the world would be in much less of a mess today if both of these were required reading in high schools everywhere.

Same applies to Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace (1979) which does fall squarely inside your preferred date range.
posted by flabdablet at 4:54 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


“ You could probably throw a dart at the list of winners of the National Book Award for non-fiction or the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and come up with any number of candidates, especially if you include finalists as well as winners.”

I did precisely this once, and found Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and The Worms. I haven’t finished it yet, but I would recommend the process.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:58 AM on October 5 [3 favorites]


I don't know if this book ever made much of a splash, but in my first year of college, I read What Happened on Lexington Green: An Inquiry into the Nature and Method of History, and it was life changing for me. The book addresses the question of who fired the first shot on Lexington Green. It provides a lot of eyewitness accounts, all conflicting, then shows how various history textbooks addressed the question. It really shows how messy the study of history is and how people who write history books make decisions that don't always seem to reflect what primary sources really say. It really helped me to become a more critical thinker.
posted by FencingGal at 5:57 AM on October 5 [7 favorites]


From my family's bookshelves, I remember a few that might fit: The Naked Ape, Future Shock, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
posted by knile at 6:04 AM on October 5 [6 favorites]


Any particular field of nonfiction? Here are some recs from my own areas of interest:

WORD POWER MADE EASY, by Norman Lewis (1991) - language & self improvement (?) - I'm a writer, and I think I already know all the words, but this book taught me so much about word roots etc., and it was great fun too.

PSYCHOANALYSIS: THE IMPOSSIBLE PROFESSION, by Janet Malcolm (1977) - Through an intensive study of "Aaron Green, " a Freudian analyst in New York City, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm reveals the inner workings of psychoanalysis. Reading any of Malcolm's books, no matter which topic or field she picks to delve deep into, is to be transported... her books feel as if they were written in a single breath, so light and effortless, and to read any one of them is to experience time as having stopped while you are in the book. And then you're done, and it feels like it took no longer than the span of one long inhale to finish it, but you're transformed. VERY highly recommended. If you're interested in psychology/therapy/psychoanalysis, also definitely check out the works of Nancy McWilliams, Salvador Minuchin, and David Malan.

EIGER DREAMS, by Jon Krakauer (1997) - Before he became famous for INTO THE WILD and INTO THIN AIR, Jon Krakauer was a mountaineer and reporter who wrote about climbers and climbing. This is a collection of his essays, brilliant as always, from one of my favorite writers. All of his other books are fantastic as well, Krakauer is readable no matter what he writes.

KOLYMA TALES, by Varlam Shalamov translated by John Glad (1966) - Shalamov spent seventeen years in the Russian gulags, and in these autobiographical stories which are only nominally fictional, he vividly captures the lives of ordinary people caught up in horrible circumstances. People think of Solzhenistyn's GULAG ARCHIPELAGO when they think of the gulags but where that book is an academic thesis, these little stories are poetry. More accessible, more wrenching, and absolutely unforgettable simply as a work of art. If you're interested in Russian history, also check out STALIN: THE COURT OF THE RED TSAR by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN, by Betty Edwards (1989) - It was a bestseller both in the 1979 first pub and in 1989 when it was released with tons of revisions, but nobody talks about this book anymore. Fantastic introduction aimed at beginners who are learning how to draw. If you buy one book about drawing, let this be it.

THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, by Brian Greene (1999) - popular physics - superbly written and not dumbed down, doesn't spend ages covering the same territory that other, more successful pop physics books like A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME have already covered. If you like pop physics and astrophysics in particular, also check out THE FIRST THREE MINUTES by Steven Weinburg.

THE DENIAL OF DEATH, by Ernest Becker (1974) - Okay, also not *that* obscure, since it won the Pulitzer prize in 1974 and a classic of existential humanist thought. Must. Read.

I'm having trouble with the "obscurity" requirement by now, haha. I keep wanting to recommend books that are very well known but nobody outside that area of interest talks about them anymore.... like, for instance, MAUS by Art Spiegelman or TRAUMA AND RECOVERY by Judith Herman. But ok, I think I've said enough here!
posted by MiraK at 6:09 AM on October 5 [7 favorites]


I've sort of lost track of what people read anymore or what's well known. Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine and John McPhee's books that are about people and not geology (Oranges, Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, etc) used to feel essential, but I feel like unless you're in a creative nonfiction MFA program (and maybe even if you are) you probably don't talk about them much. But maybe they still have active fans I haven't met?
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:32 AM on October 5 [6 favorites]


Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Collective was a revolutionary book when it came out. It provided information to women about their bodies that was simply unavailable elsewhere at the time.
posted by FencingGal at 6:34 AM on October 5 [10 favorites]


"John McPhee's books that are about people and not geology (Oranges, Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, etc) used to feel essential, but I feel like unless you're in a creative nonfiction MFA program (and maybe even if you are) you probably don't talk about them much. But maybe they still have active fans I haven't met?"

Raises hand.

I will fight anyone who says that Oranges is not essential.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:48 AM on October 5 [7 favorites]


(I mean, sorry, I am definitely on the list of active fans, and like his people books better than his rocks books. I just don't get the sense there are a lot of others in that boat. Glad to meet one!)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:50 AM on October 5 [3 favorites]


The Rapture of Canaan got a lot of attention when it came out, and now I never hear about it, or the author, anywhere. I worked in big-box bookstores years after it came out and never saw it. It was only available by special order, and nobody ever ordered it. I don't know if it won any awards, but it is an unusual, well-written story.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 6:56 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav is a good (and occasionally bonkers) introduction to quantum physics that was written in 1979.

Maybe not coincidentally, this is the same year that Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid was published. Having read and understood GEB was something of a nerd-cred litmus test in the 80s, but I don't hear much about it any more.

If you read GEB and like Hofstadter's style, you might also like Metamagical Themas, which is the collection of columns he wrote for Scientific American. Some of them rehash ideas from GEB; others go into all sorts of nifty and weird directions.
posted by jquinby at 7:09 AM on October 5 [14 favorites]


Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered and Tools for Conviviality were cool AF in the mid-1970s, but the eighties did for them.

I'd also suggest Edward de Bono's lateral thinking books. They were everywhere in my parents' mid-70s suburbanite set's bookshelves. I have a young colleague who's totally into de Bono's ideas and I hadn't heard the name for 30+ years
posted by scruss at 7:12 AM on October 5 [2 favorites]


I worked in an indy bookshop in the 90s. Here are some n/f titles I remember being 'important to know about'.

Demon-Haunted World, drury/sagan. especially relevant to US.

Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean.

The Civil War series, Shelby Foote.

All the Martha Stewart cookbooks.

A Brief History of Time, Hawking.

All the Stephen J. Gould canon.

Madonna's cheeze art/photography 'Sex'.

The Hot Zone, Preston

What is Life, Dorion Sagan

strangely, we sold a lot of hardcover bio, but the only ones that stand out to me are:

I Am Not Spock, Nimoy
I Am Spock, Nimoy

Controversial art/photography: Jock Sturgis, Robert Mapplethorpe. Pretty sure Femalia was about then.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:23 AM on October 5 [2 favorites]


The Greening of America, about how the 1960s counterculture was going to transform the U.S., was super-popular in 1970-71, then it seemed to fade from everyone's memory simultaneously.
posted by Epixonti at 7:52 AM on October 5 [3 favorites]


non-fiction books... representing a great deal of important human thought

Once a fixture of any living room, gone now: the Encyclopedia.
    (Note the irony of a link to Wikipedia for more info)

posted by Rash at 7:54 AM on October 5 [5 favorites]




Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers from 1988.

Iacocca: An Autobiography.

80s business books seem to be a fertile place for this in the same way that 70s eco-utopia books are. Which makes sense given the reputation of the two decades.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:51 AM on October 5 [3 favorites]


Infinity and the Mind goes right in there with Wu Li and GEB.

I would say Feynman's bookstore type of books but I'm not sure if they were 'acclaimed' or not. Certainly well known for Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:15 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


If your 1970 cutoff is a maybe rather than a bright line,

Absolutely.

I keep wanting to recommend books that are very well known but nobody outside that area of interest talks about them anymore....

Please do!
posted by mikek at 9:56 AM on October 5


Social Limits to Growth by long time editor of The Economist Fred Hirsch.

The Entropy Law and the Economic Process by Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen. The best book nobody has read.

The Self-Organizing Universe by Erich Jantsch.

From Being to Becoming by Ilya Prigogene. Prigogene got a lot of attention for his ideas about true irreversibility in thermodynamics and two dimensional time, including a Nobel Prize, but his work seems to have been abandoned if not refuted, and I've seen his Nobel referred to as the worst mistake the Nobel committee ever made, but I still think there's something there.
posted by jamjam at 10:18 AM on October 5 [2 favorites]


Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener is from 1948 but it's definitely this kind of book. Big ideas about science and society, hugely influential, almost totally forgotten.

"Cybernetics" as an academic field overall has the same sort of retro feeling -- similar to chaos theory mentioned above. It was a big deal well into the 80s but now very hard to find people who claim to study it. Arguably it's just that the core technical tools (of feedback loops, optimization, information, and control systems) have been so influential they've seeped into the water in most fields of science and engineering, such that it no longer appears to be a separate subject area.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:24 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


So I could at least spell his name correctly, right? Make that 'Prigogine'.
posted by jamjam at 10:24 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


nthing Future shock - huge at the time and now, nothing. It envisioned a world in which rapid change made people go insane. Orsen Wells narrated the documentary!
posted by zenon at 11:08 AM on October 5


VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL, by Svetlana Alexievich (1997) - this writer won the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature which catapulted her to fame. VOICES was adapted by HBO into a TV miniseries titled CHERNOBYL which was all the rage last year, but nobody I've spoken to about the TV series (which was fantastic) seems to know it's based on her book. So - that's another not-really-obscure-but-yeah-kinda-obscure book for this list. But be warned, this goddamn book will probably give you nightmares. It's an oral history of Chernobyl, and Alexievich is simply reporting these stories as told by survivors, verbatim. Each person's individuality, mannerisms, and personality comes through with startling clarity. It makes the horror of the stories they are telling all too real.

THE KARMA OF BROWN FOLK by Vijay Prashad (2000) - sociology and history - Prashad looks into the complexities faced by the members of a model minority— south asians - who are consistently deployed as a weapon in the war against black America.

A RIVER IN DARKNESS: ONE MAN'S ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA, by Masaji Ishikawa (2000) - exactly what it sounds like. Riveting memoir.
posted by MiraK at 1:10 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]


Maybe it's because I move in different circles now, but I used to see Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy on all the bookshelves (including mine) but no longer hear it mentioned.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:55 PM on October 5


Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas, won the National Book Award back in the day. (IIRC, it was one of the assigned books in a natural history class I had ~1979; the other was the above mentioned "Origin of Consciousness..." by Jaynes.)
posted by Bron at 2:23 PM on October 5 [3 favorites]


Bit earlier than your era (1961) but Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities did for urbanism what Rachel Carson did for environmentalism, and it's still an excellent and readable work.
posted by tivalasvegas at 6:32 PM on October 5 [3 favorites]


And also a bit early (1962) but still basically in that period: Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
posted by tivalasvegas at 6:38 PM on October 5 [2 favorites]


Surprised nobody’s mentioned Suzette Haden Elgin’s “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense” yet.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:34 PM on October 5 [2 favorites]


The Lives of Cell, as mentioned above
Stiff by Mary Roach
Books by Judith Landers, if you're interested in British history
The Red Queen by Matt Ridley
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
posted by Enid Lareg at 8:10 PM on October 5


Speaking of '80s corporate/business books a la IACOCCA, how about LIAR'S POKER by Michael Lewis? That was a fantastic read! It was the inspiration for the movie, THE WOLF OF WALL ST, iirc, but as good as that movie was, the book was better!
posted by MiraK at 4:19 AM on October 6 [1 favorite]


as good as that movie was, the book was better!

Not uncommon.

posted by flabdablet at 6:08 AM on October 6 [2 favorites]


This Books of the Century list might be fun to browse. Maybe skim through the 'critically acclaimed' lists for things you never heard of?

From the front page --
This website compiles, by year, four different lists of books published during the twentieth century:

The top ten bestsellers in fiction, as recorded by Publishers Weekly.
The top ten bestsellers in nonfiction, also as recorded by Publishers Weekly.
The main selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was founded in 1926.
Critically acclaimed and historically significant books, as identified by consulting various critics' and historians' lists of important books.

Not every list is available for every year. Click here to learn more about the lists and for some caveats about using them. Otherwise, simply follow the links to the left to delve in. Happy hunting!
About Jaynes's Origin of Consciousness - It seems to be have a bit of a renaissance since the re-issue in 2001. If you go to his Google Scholars page you can click on the title of Origin of Consciousness and see the annual number of citations. The number of references grew over the early 21st century, hitting a sort of peak in the 2010s. It's been 30 yrs since I read it, and assumed it fell out of favor because of its speculative nature. I suppose I'll have to revisit it now that it seems to have some staying power.
posted by Patadave at 10:30 AM on October 7 [2 favorites]


I'm OK – You're OK
posted by thaths at 2:29 PM on October 8


The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford.
posted by Wet Spot at 3:18 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


I wouldn't recommend reading Jaynes' Origin of Consciousness when you can get the gist of his argument from a wiki page. It is a creative thesis but pretty wacky: That the ancients were not conscious the same way that modern humans are. And the primary evidence he advances for this? That the Greeks did not use the personal pronoun in the Homeric Odyssey/Iliad! Really?

Some other choices:

Chances Are: Adventures in Probability

Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies.

How to Draw a Cup of Coffee

Ancient Inventions

Invention by Design: How Engineers get from Thought to Thing.

These all have <50 reviews at amazon(.ca)
posted by storybored at 8:14 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


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