Most Obscure on My Shelves – Non-Fiction

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?

I have always found more comfort in fiction and poetry than in self-help books or true stories. Most of the non-fiction books I own are professional books used during university or business days. If I ever do have a craving for a biography or a memoir, I borrow it from a library. However, since I started book blogging, I have made more of a conscious effort to read at least the occasional non-fiction book. Some of them have been so enlightening and have completely changed my way of thinking about the world.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die (published in US under the title of Bright-Sided)

A lucid analysis and full-frontal attack on the reductionist thinking that has taken over not just the US but most of the Western world in recent years. Ehrenreich looks at the myth of ‘thinking yourself well’ when you have cancer, the Puritan work ethic which has led to the American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps if only you want it badly enough, the ‘attraction’ philosophy of books like The Secret and so on. As someone who has both given and received coaching, I have seen first hand the real power of placebo (which is what positive thinking is to a certain extent), but also the ways in which it can be misinterpreted and lead to a downward spiral when the world refuses to live up to your personal hopes and values. Or how it can be used to justify someone’s unfortunate circumstances (‘he brought his misfortune upon himself, she can’t see the silver lining’).

Above all, this book (published in 2009) shows that critical thinking and reasoned debate have been demoted in the media, which has led to the vicious popularist rhetoric and partisanship which we all deplore at present.

James Davidson: Courtesans and Fishcakes

First of all: how can anyone resist this intriguing title? It’s about the culture of consumption of Ancient Athens: food, drink, sex, gambling and political manoeuvring. It makes the ancient world really come to life and it’s the book I always recommend to people who want an ‘anthropological study’ of Classical Greece. It’s a book about gossip, written in an accessible style, but based on careful research. It also shows what remarkably advanced thinkers those Athenians really were (despite some inevitable shortcomings regarding gender and slavery). We could learn something from them today.

This view of wealth as something changeable and fragile and rather separate from the men who owned it and this view of consumption as a warning of an individual’s dangerous appetites rather than as a sign of elite membership… is clearly related to Athens’ peculiar democratic system with its horror of internal division, its symbolic appropriations, its suspicion of riches, its weakened sense of family or clan identity… In Athens politics effectively was society.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I’ve written about this before and I’ve said it before: this is the book I am most jealous of as an anthropologist, the book I wish I had written. It gives voice to the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai Airport, and it is written in language so vivid, with so much empathy, that it feels like fiction. It does not reduce people to numbers and facts, but neither does it romanticise their virtues and dreams. It is a story of those left behind by India’s economic boom, the exploitation of the weak by those slightly less weak. Much has been made of Boo’s status as an outsider (although she lived with the people she describes for three years), but this seems like a very fair, powerful and morally thoughtful book. Perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the last decade or more.


13 thoughts on “Most Obscure on My Shelves – Non-Fiction”

  1. They all sound great especially the last one. The cover is beautiful and India is one of my favourite book settings though I have only read fiction set there.

  2. Oh, that Ehrenreich sounds terrific, Marina Sofia! Certainly I’ve seen plenty of evidence of that phenomenon. I’d be interested in her thoughts on how that reductionist thinking develops.

    1. There is a TEDx talk with many of her ideas from this book here:

      While she talks mainly about healthcare and positive thinking, it applies to many other situations too.

  3. Those all sound fascinating to me. Personally, the first one comes closest to me, professionally. What you say about the power of positive thinking and its usefulness is absolutely true and good, – as is how it gets abused. I can get to feel quite violent about the proponents of rigid ‘this condition ‘means’ that’ – there are a lot of utter rubbish magical thinking books out there, adding to the pain and distress people experience when they have negative events, particularly health related, in their lives. And of course, every one of these new agey gurus will assign a different ‘meaning’ – its all subjective and some of it is utter twaddle. Like anything, what can be enormously helpful – taking responsibility, getting away from being stuck in a sense of self as ‘victim’ with no power at all, can also become abused

    1. I get to see both aspects of that in my job: victim blaming (do lean in, woman!) and also the victim mentality (I can’t do anything about it, the corporate culture won’t allow me to). Everything in moderation, I say, and we can all influence and control something within our own personal sphere, but we also have to learn to accept that there are things beyond our control and stop blaming ourselves or others for it.

  4. I have lots of unread non fiction here and I culled some books recently as I’m no longer interested in reading them. I tend to go through phases with non fiction

    1. I’m not a huge non-fiction reader for pleasure (perhaps because I have to read a lot of it for work), but just occasionally I do find a gem.

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