5 Overlooked Nonfiction New York Review of Books Classics

For 20 years, The New York Review of Books‘s publishing division, NYRB Classics being its most famous imprint, has offered a steady supply of under-read and almost-forgotten literary gems to curious readers. While novels like Stoner (perhaps the imprint’s biggest success) and The Invention of Morel have made the biggest splashes, the library’s nonfiction has been the biggest draw for yours truly.

Here are five overlooked (less than 1,000 Goodreads ratings) nonfiction titles from the NYRB Classics’s catalog. For a lengthier list of great nonfiction, check out Rebecca Hussey’s from last October.

The World I Live In by Helen Keller

Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life is firmly lodged in the autobiographical canon, and even people who haven’t read it or seen its adaptations, usually under the title The Miracle Worker, are familiar with the details of Keller’s childhood. You would expect her followup book to be a sequel, but The World I Live In is a completely different beast. From the direct first page to the rapturous final chapter, Keller explains her condition, corrects misunderstanding and dispels the notion that she is incapable of living a full life. Ironically, through putting her experience on paper and bringing herself down to earth, Keller comes off as even more extraordinary. The term “life-changing” gets attached to books easier than to any other art form, but The World I Live In deserves the label. You can’t help but be transformed by it.

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse

This 550-page work of history and cultural criticism will be a slog for some readers (it’s by far the driest, most dense read on this list) and catnip for others, particularly if you’re into the Harlem Renaissance. Cruse charts the path of black intellectual thought from the 1920s to 1967, the year of the book’s publication, and ends up being harsh on both integrationists and black nationalists. Make no mistake, Cruse was not pro-segregation, but he didn’t see integration as a panacea to racial problems. Highly recommended to those interested in American race relations; just have Wikipedia at the ready.

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

It was a routine trip to his town’s missionary bookstore when Tété-Michel Kpomassie, then 16, came across a book about Eskimos in Greenland. When he read it, he instantly fell in love with the country and became determined to go there. For over a decade, Kpomassie worked his way through Africa and Europe and finally sailed to the country of his dreams. The memoir that resulted from his travels rivals the best of the genre in terms of detail and scene-setting. Kpomassie’s good-naturedness and enthusiasm is simply infectious, and the tone of the book reminded me of the globe-trotting surfers from Bruce Brown’s classic documentary The Endless Summer. I knew I was in for an interesting book, but I wasn’t expecting a feel-good one.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago by Norman Mailer

This account of 1968’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions usually plays second banana to Mailer’s New Journalism classic The Armies of the Night, but I think Miami and the Siege of Chicago is every bit that book’s equal. The opening half, about the RNC, offers priceless snapshots of Republican higher-ups of the time (As with The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, have Wikipedia on hand to brush up on your history when you encounter an unfamiliar name), but it’s the ground- (and sometimes balcony-) level dispatch about the Chicago police riot, which broke out in response to anti-Vietnam war protests, that makes this essential reading for anyone interested in 20th-century American history.

Poison Penmanship by Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford published two memoirs, Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict, before Poison Penmanship, and in a way this collection of magazine pieces works as a third: a memoir of the writing life. It’s also something of a journalism manual, beginning with a great introduction and following each piece with comments and criticism from Mitford, in which she often kicks herself for missing an opportunity here or there, or wishes she had structured her story differently. Above all, the articles are plain fun. “Maine Chance Diary,” “My Short and Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor” and the two Sign of the Dove pieces in particular are as funny as anything in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Any way you read it, and whatever you take from it, this book is a joy.

5 Overlooked New York Review Books Classics – Fiction

For over 50 years, The New York Review of Books has been a go-to source of in-depth criticism, opinion and news not just on literature but current affairs, science, and culture. The magazine also has a publishing division: New York Review Books, its most famous imprint perhaps being NYRB Classics. For 20 years now, it’s been the company’s mission to bring out-of-print and obscure books to mainstream attention. For foreign-language books, NYRB often commissions its own translations, and each edition they release is accompanied by an insightful introduction or afterword. It’s this sort of care that makes NYRB akin to, say, The Criterion Collection, a home video company specializing in releases of important classic and foreign films.

Here are a few overlooked (less than 1,000 Goodreads ratings) NYRB classics. For more under-read classics, check out Rebecca Hussey’s list on Book Riot.

Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz

This book is a bit of genre-bender, as it’s made up entirely of conversation transcript but formed into a novel through Rosenkrantz’s careful selection and placement. Friends Marsha, Emily and Vincent, well, talk their way through the summer of 1965, covering sex, psychology, friends, careers and more. Truth be told, long stretches of this book are about as interesting as hearing someone describe their dream to you, or listening in on someone who’s high and thinks they’re the smartest person in the world, but the book scratches well a very particular itch of mine: the countless stories, confrontations, conversations and speeches that are lost to history because no one was there to record them. Talk gives you a slice of that, and while little of it is gold, it’s a fascinating reminder of the enormity of life and the novelist’s difficult task of putting it down on paper. If you want to know what life in the 1960s was like for Marsha, Emily and Vincent, here’s a fraction of a fraction of the answer.

 

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

I worry that Young Man With a Horn’s “first jazz novel” label hurts more than it helps, perhaps relegating it to historical relic status. That would be a shame, because this tale of gifted trumpeter Rick Martin’s rise and fall is a surprisingly smart novel about not just music but race, showing how musicians both black and white navigated an awkward, tense social landscape in order to sit back and enjoy the pleasures of making art together. I imagine fans of beat literature will dig this one; there are shades of Kerouac in Martin’s single-mindedness, his drive for artistic greatness, even as the rest of his life falls by the wayside.

 

The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

Said to be influenced by Franz Kafka’s work, Camara Laye’s second novel reads like a 300-page bender. European protagonist Clarence stumbles through fictional town Adrame in an unnamed African country, confident he can procure a position working for the region’s king. This is a book that so succeeds at putting you in the shoes of its bewildered protagonist that you will find yourself frequently pausing to wonder whether it’s you or Clarence who is confused. Stick with it and you’ll continually be reminded that Laye has things under control and is always one step ahead.

 

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

Informal storytelling is at the heart of this painfully short but grand-in-scope novel. In fact, Blackwood’s unnamed protagonist does little else but listen to one family member gossip about another. The targets of the majority of the tales are the eponymous, miserable great-grandmother, who seems content to waste away in her mansion, and her daughter, who was put in an asylum after attempting to murder her grandson at his christening. What makes this book such great reading is that you feel like you’re eavesdropping, like you really, really shouldn’t be reading it; I think this is the mark of a great story about a family.

 

Negrophobia by Darius James

I’ve deliberately saved Darius James’s debut novel for last. Jeez, what to say about this downright filthy romp. The book, written as a screenplay, follows “blonde bombshell” Bubbles Brazil, a casually racist teenager constantly at odds with the black people in her life, particularly her maid and classmates. The former finally has enough one day and casts a voodoo spell on Bubbles that sends her on a surreal, relentlessly grotesque journey through her subconscious. “I hope Negrophobia gives you nightmares,” James writes to a new generation of readers in the book’s foreword. The book didn’t elicit that extreme of a reaction from me, but like Bubbles, I came out the experience changed, to say the least.