Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Hardbacks

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Still on the right-hand side of my home library, I have those fine hardback books or special editions, which are bigger and bolder and more expensive than my usual paperback collections.

Pierre Bourdieu: Outline of a Theory of Practice

Published ages ago in 1972, it was still a required text when I began studying anthropology but has fallen out of favour since, I believe. Yet its chapter on sources of power and ‘Modes of Domination’ still rings true and very prescient. Legitimising the established order is done not just through law, but through education, not just through ideology but also through:

the overt connection between qualifications and jobs as a smokescreen for the connection –  which it records surreptitiously, under cover of formal equality – between the qualifications people obtain and the cultural capital they have inherited.

In other words, meritocracy is fantasy, in a world where the starting positions are already so weighed against certain categories of people. Bourdieu also notes that wealth , the ultimate basis of power, can only exert power durably when it is invested heavily with symbolic capital. The myth of those wonderfully talented bankers who are creating wealth for the nation, which will have a trickle-down effect, for instance.

This probably qualifies for ‘most boring cover’, because of course it is a serious work which cannot deal with such fripperies as design.

Barbara Pym: A Very Private Eye

This is an autobiography in diaries, letters and notebooks written by Barbara Pym., edited by her sister Hilary Pym and her friend Hazel Holt. Pym is one of my favourite English writers of the 20th century, but I knew very little about her life other than that she worked for the International African Institute for many years and had a sardonic view of anthropologists. This book was a present from a dear friend during my time in Cambridge.

Here is a lovely, poignant, feisty quote:

What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? Some have criticised The Sweet Dove for this. What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest

Alison is a wonderful writer and translator from French, part of the Geneva Writers Group. She has given us the voices of Muriel Barbery, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Jean-Philippe Blondel, Amelie Nothomb, Anna Gavalda and LeClezio in English. This novel, published in 2016, is inspired by historical events and chronicles a summer in the life of Anton Chekhov and his friendship with a young girl, Zinaida, who is fatally ill. It is also the story of the missing manuscript of a novel that Chekhov is alleged to have written, so moves backwards and forwards in time. So there is a strong literary theme and a translation theme running through it, as well as a meditation on friendship and love which transcends time and place. Perfect summer reading, and I intend to do just that this summer…

23 thoughts on “Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Hardbacks”

  1. I’m afraid the Bourdieu had me thinking ‘very French dry intellectual style, too lofty and far too hard cerebral work for me’ – I don’t object to having to think hard, but I do need a bit of succulent juiciness in writing style. And then…..for that to be deliciously followed by Pym. And her quote, which succulently, precisely and juicily conveyed exactly what I was trying to convey I want, in writing. Thought and content, yes, but with vitality, verve and wit. Pym! Pym! Oh if only all texts which are full of academic knotty argument could be written by those who have skills, palate and finesse in marrying words together. I have an image of a writer as a kind of chef, joyfully making word dishes for the greedy gourmet reader to smack their lips over, salivating with delight as they chew delicious phrases!

    1. Actually, the Bourdieu is not as dry and dull as one might think. But yes, not a patch on Barbara Pym. She is just delightful! I haven’t read Dorothy Sayers’ academic work, but I wonder if she might be one to marry knotty argument with dashing style?

  2. How about Policy Learning and British Governance in the 1960s (Understanding Governance)? I’m cheating here – it’s my partner’s, unread by me I’m afraid, although I’m sure I should read it out of loyalty.

    1. Now, now, I wasn’t talking about ‘books most likely to put you to sleep’, I said ‘underrated’ ones. Mind you, it might soon sound like ancient history the way things are going in British governance and policy right now…

  3. These look wonderful, Marina Sofia! Isn’t it great when you find hidden treasures like that? I’m especially drawn to the Pym. I’l bet that was a thoroughly enjoyable book.

  4. I have a couple more Pym novels waiting on the shelf, to add to the three I’ve read already. I find I have to space them out, as they tend to go over similar ground, or adopt a similar voice/approach, which is fine, but I like a bit of variety. Baudrillard, perhaps?! Or Leotard – have to use these in my teaching, and not the most uplifting to read. I did just find a lovely 1954 book on the shelf, a catalogue of a London photography/camera dealer; has some delightful pictures, drawings, etc. Might even post on it at some point. My wife tells me it’s hers, given to her by a niece for her birthday, in the days when she was a keen photographer herself, with her own darkroom. All digital now, sadly

  5. I go with the majority – the Pym quote is wonderful! I don’t think I have any particularly obscure books on my shelves though people do tend to look askance at my two shelves full of political biographies and autobiographies. Maybe the Gyles Brandreth one counts as obscure…

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