Columbia University Press, 280 pages, $26
Just as “desert-island discs” are the can’t-live-without-’em records that you couldn’t actually listen to if marooned on an island without electricity, a “B-side book” is a nonsensical but diverting concept. The term B-side refers to the lesser-known songs on the flip side of singles released as 45-rpm records. Launched in 2017 by Public Books magazine, the ongoing essay series “B-Side Books” has set out to celebrate literature of “unsung, underrecognized genius.”
Now compiled in a collection edited by John Plotz, B-Side Books delves into 40 works from a variety of times, locations, and degrees of obscurity. The oldest is the 14th century’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which will be getting a big-screen adaptation this summer, making it much less underrecognized. The newest is All Aunt Hagar’s Children, by Edward P. Jones, which was widely praised by critics when it was published in 2006 but “deserve[s] a wider audience,” according to Elizabeth Graver. Jones’ short stories, she writes, “remind us — so gently it is easy to overlook their underlying ferocity — that we are all just tiny figures inside the sweep of an often violent history.”
This B-side book business is not for the easily discouraged reader. Since most of these works won’t be in your local bookstore or library, you will have to go hunting for them. Once you have tracked down your copy, you will, like the little girl on the book cover, have to subdue the wild world around you to immerse yourself in an uncommon story. For Riddley Walker, for example, you will have to decipher the version of English that Russell Hoban suggests would be spoken and written around Canterbury three millennia after a nuclear holocaust. For Other Leopards, set in decolonizing Africa, you will have to follow what Emily Hyde describes as Denis Williams’ “jittery stream-of-consciousness style.” And to read Alexei Tolstoy’s Road to Calvary is to take a journey of 885 pages.
Many essayists make big claims, describing narrative achievements for which you might not have known you were searching. Namwali Serpell calls William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, first published over a century ago, “one of the most startling accounts of infinity that I’ve ever read.” Similarly, Kate Marshall asks, “Is there a more entrancing account of an encounter with non-human sentience than Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris? She argues that the book’s depiction of its vast eponymous ocean has a more powerful message than ever, not fully conveyed in either of the film adaptations.
Softer pitches can be even more enticing. Here’s Ursula K. Le Guin’s paean to a passage in John Galt’s “not exactly ... great” Annals of the Parish (1821): “In pure, ignorant defiance of the decree of the Iowa Writing School that controls almost all modern fiction, Galt tells without showing. ... It’s left up to us to hear what’s being told, to imagine it, to feel it.”
It may seem odd to complain about spoilers when discussing books that are decades and even centuries old, but the best essays here avoid giving away too many details and plot turns. They offer instead an intriguing premise, an impeccable paragraph, or just a sketch of all that the book contains, inviting readers to take part in a fresh experience of their own. Some essays suggest new ways of looking at certain classic books or literary forms. While appreciating Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart, for instance, Merve Emre theorizes that “the sudden onset of unusual events — affairs, murders, suicides, deliverances — receives its most intense treatment in the novella.”
If spoilers are unavoidable, a warning is welcome, and Leah Price provides it early in her clever piece about Celia Fremlin’s 1958 psychological thriller, The Hours Before Dawn. Price admires how “Fremlin saw, through her own postpartum fog, the literary potential of that cognitive impairment. ... New parents are ready-made for noir. They creep around like burglars trying to find a diaper without switching on the light; they edge a bottle out of a sleeping mouth with the dexterity of a pickpocket.”
Whether identifying “the perfect anti-Western,” an Iranian comic novel from the 1970s, or the cheerful account of a Japanese grandmother’s fitful Buddhist practice, these wide-ranging essays are a prod to pursue the world’s sometimes hard-to-find novels, novellas, and memoirs. With any luck, you can take a stack of these B-Side books to an electricity-less desert island and, distraction-free, finish a few of them.