20 Strange and Wonderful Books

This site would not be complete without at least one page about books. I've spent a significant portion of my life, in particular my inner life, collecting and savoring books.

A complete catalog of my library would be tedious; a list of my favorite books would be mostly titles you already know. More interesting by far would be a short list of books that took me by surprise and then changed me, odd little books you may never have heard of. After several decades there are only a handful that stick out in this way. Some are truly wonderful and cry out to be shared. Others, frankly, aren't as good - but are genuinely strange.

Here, then, are twenty strange and wonderful books from my library. Even if you have no curiosity about my inner life, you will profit by coming to know any one of these books.

1. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

by Chris Van Allsburg

My first selection is also the shortest: fourteen drawings, each with a title and a very short caption. That's it. But each caption is the seed of an irresistable story and, taken with Van Allsburg's haunting drawings, they produce a sensation in the reader that is pure magic.

One such drawing, "Uninvited Guests," seems an ordinary sketch of a basement storage area: a shelf with old cans, a neglected ice skate hanging from a wire, a stack of newspapers, the bottom of a staircase with someone's foot just visible on the third step. But closer examination shows, cut into the wall, an impossibly small door with rounded top and tidy doorknob - maybe 18 inches high. And this caption: "His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn."

Chris Van Allsburg produces the kind of children's books that are really purchased for the guilty pleasure of adults. This book, which I take down regularly to marvel at, is the quickest antidote I know for a sluggish imagination. Check it out.

2. Flatland - A Romance of Many Dimensions

by Edwin A. Abbott

If I could make one book on this list required reading, this would be it. An adult mind is not fully formed until it grasps the possibility of higher dimensions. These dimensions may or may not exist, but the idea that they could, and the fact that we can describe and partially understand things that are quite literally beyond our 3-dimensional imaginations, is so astonishing that it can keep a sense of wonder alive in the most jaded mind. And undermine the pretensions of anyone who thinks the boundaries of our world are fixed.

And it's short (80 pages!) and fun to read. Written over a hundred years ago by an obscure English clergyman, it describes the adventures of A. Square, a resident of a two-dimensional world who is lifted up into three-dimensional space and set down again to rave like a madman before the unseeing denizens of his world. The book is not only the best explanation of higher (and lower) dimensions ever written, it is also a biting satire on Victorian society. Check it out.

3. The Well At The World's End

by William Morris

This is a dangerous book, especially for teenagers. When I first read it at the tender age of thirteen, I absorbed it so completely that for weeks I spoke in the archaic English Morris invented for this, one of the earliest fantasy novels of that genre. But it was only when I re-read the book at age forty that I understood how profound its effect was. In short, I became a romantic because of this book.

William Morris is one of my heros. A sculptor, architect, author, musician, artist, translator and famous designer of fabrics, glass, and furniture (the Morris Chair), he has been called the nineteenth century's most protean renaissance man. He also invented the genre of heroic fantasy and this is his masterwork. Published in 1896, it describes the adventures of Ralph, the youngest of four princes who ventures forth from his small kingdom into a wider world. His encounters with the opposite sex are earthy and deeply sexual; his quest eventually evolves into the pursuit of a great love. Ultimately he is drawn to the WELL AT THE WORLD'S END (which always appears in capital letters). Morris's achievment is that his story lives up to that remarkable title.

The Well at the World's End is a fairy tale written by an adult for adults. Teenagers beware! Check it out.

4. Labyrinths - Selected Stories and Other Writings

by Jorge Luis Borges

The blind poet Borges is one of the better known writers on this list. I could have selected any one of his collections, but Labyrinths has the greatest personal signifcance. From an early age I was fascinated with labyrinths and came to see almost everything around me as a kind of maze: the neurons in my brain, the great tangle of human relationships, any computer, the branching journey that is every human life, and the world itself in all its bewildering glory. All Borges stories, especially "The Garden of Forking Paths" and "The Library of Babel," share this view.

Borges had perhaps the most labyrintine mind of any man in his century. A scholar's scholar, he "read everything, and especially what nobody reads anymore." Each one of his very short narratives is a glimpse into that mind: always murky, lost in shadows, twisted by paradoxes, immersed in irony, dissolving into an infinite regress of reflections.

Each one of his stories has a way of lodging itself in the recesses of the reader's mind and staying on there. To this day I still find myself wandering the "indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries" of the Library of Babel. Here I learned that there is no discernable difference for mortal man between a very large number and an infinite number - but that was just the beginning. And there are dozens more stories in this collection, each stranger and more wonderful than the last. Check it out.

5. Maze

by Christopher Manson

As an aficionado of the labyrinth I have built up quite a collection of maze books. I don't tend to favor books of ordinary line mazes drawn in the shape of chickens or starbursts or freeway systems; instead I prefer books that take the concept of the maze to a new level, mazes which are both aesthetically pleasing and genuinely bewildering. This book of Gorreyesque drawings by Christopher Manson is the strangest and most wonderful maze book in my collection.

Those who are used to tracing branching passageways with a pencil may not even recognize this book as a maze, but that's exactly what it is. The book consists of 45 drawings of different rooms. Each room is choked with odd brickabrac, mysterious symbols, and numbered doorways to other rooms. There is also a running narrative that goes with each drawing which only serves to raise more questions. In addition to the puzzle of finding the shortest path from beginning to end and back again, the destination room includes a hidden riddle with clues scattered along the true path.

Maze is the perfect book to get lost in on a rainy afternoon. Check it out.

6. The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers

by David Wells

This is the only reference book on my list. It may be suprising to some that a reference book could be either strange or wonderful, but this book is both. The idea behind it is so breathtakingly simple it's a wonder no one ever thought of it before: a dictionary made up of numbers instead of words.

If, as Emerson observed, each word is a fossil poem, then numbers, too, must have their stories to tell. And so they do - odd little facts that give each number a new depth, and suggest deeper patterns swirling beneath. Look up 1549, for example, and discover that it is the only odd number below 10,000 that is not the sum of a prime and a power. How odd. What is it that makes 1549 one in ten thousand? Does it mean something? And who first noticed this? And why?

The numbers are arranged by size, starting with the square root of minus one and ending with Graham's number, the world's largest according to the Guinness Book of Records. Along the way are all sorts of interesting diagrams, a glossary, a very useful index, some tables, and a bibliography to launch further investigations. Like all great dictionaries, it is best when browsed utterly at random. Check it out.

7. The Animal Family

by Randall Jarrell

This starkly beautiful story was included in a prominent list of the best children's stories of the 20th century, but like all great fairy tales, is really written for adults. It is one of those "deceptively simple" stories that can only be produced by a great writer, in this case the last work from a poet of the first rank, and then only after great care and time, boiling away all the pretty falsities till only the bleached bones of barest truth remain.

The Table of Contents tells the story in a nutshell: The Hunter. The Mermaid. The Hunter Brings Home a Baby. The Bear. The Lynx. The Lynx and the Bear Bring Home a Boy. The Boy. In this way a family is constructed, one member at a time. Each member is ever so slightly transformed in the telling, pushed just enough past the mundane to catch a glimpse of the very real magic we tend to overlook in our real families.

The decorations by Maurice Sendak complete the enchantment. If you seek to know your own heart's deepest wish, and see it washed clean and held up for all to see, read this book. Check it out.

8. Tuva or Bust!

by Ralph Leighton

Tuva or Bust chronicles the last great adventure of the twentieth century's strangest and most wonderful genius. Richard Feynman is known to all physics students for his Feynman diagrams, and to many for his love of the bongo drums, his safe-cracking exploits during the Manhattan Project, and for many, many other accomplishments, both zany and profound. The author, Ralph Leighton, plays Boswell to Feynman's Johnson, and has co-written several other excellent books about this Nobel Prize-winning prankster, all of which should be read immediately.

But this is by far my favorite of Leighton's stories. It all started with Feynman remembering the strange, triangular stamps he collected as a boy from a forgotten place named Tuva. Leighton initially refused to believe in such a place, but when they look it up and find it, tucked behind the iron curtain in the very center of Asia, and when they discover that its captial city is named "Kyzyl," Feynman vows on the spot to visit it. So begins a decade-long quest to penetrate Soviet bureaucracy through means no sane person would resort to.

I have written elsewhere in this site about Ponarvs. Richard Feynman is highest and truest Ponarivian I know. This quest for Tuva is surely his most wonderful Ponarv. And the true story which results is stranger than any work of fiction on my shelves. Check it out.

9. Robots Have No Tails

by Henry Kuttner

At all times I keep in my pocket a list of eighteen names just in case I happen to stumble upon a used book store. They are all pseudonyms of Henry Kuttner, the single most imaginative science fiction writer ever, and one of the funniest as well. He died young during the golden age of science fiction, but in his short life produced a dizzying array of stories, each stranger and more wonderful than the next. He created many memorable characters along the way, but this one, the robot series, is my favorite.

This collection of stories is about a genius named Gallegher who can invent astonishing machines but only when seriously drunk. Upon waking the next day he never remembers what he invented or how or even why - and so begins his mounting troubles. His most inscrutable invention, who becomes a recurring character, is a fabulously conceited robot named Joe.

It is the business of science fiction writers to be imaginative, but if you were take the whole lot of them and arrange them in a stadium along an X axis of strange and a Y axis of wonderful, Kuttner would be the one standing alone way, way out in left field. These stories are only a first taste, and only hint at his range, but are great fun and as good an introduction as any to one of the most flexible minds ever to take up a pen. Sadly, this book is out of print but other collections of Kuttner's work can be found with enough persistence. Check it out.

10. The Recursive Universe

by William Poundstone

My Cousin Dave is a great reader who covets many of the books in my library; he has not a larcenous bone in his body, but if he were to steal but one book in all my collection, this would be it. It is in many ways typical of the science-for-layman non-fiction books that I collect by the score, but its subject is more obscure than most and this particular book is very, very well done.

Its subject is something called "The Game of Life." It's not actually a game at all, but more of pattern generator by the unorthodox mathematician John Conway. Those nerds who have seen it used as a screen-saver know that it can create surprisingly complex patterns from a very simple set of rules. But the more closely you look at this "game," the more astonishing it becomes, and William Poundstone looks at it very closely indeed. By the time he is done you can see for yourself how intelligent life could, in principle, evolve in a system consisting only of dots on a grid which do nothing but twinkle on and off depending on how many neighboring dots they have.

Many books ponder the nature of reality, but few indeed, maybe only this one, give you lab work you can do yourself to actually see complexity arising from simplicity. As Isaac Asimov says in his blurb: "Absolutely illuminating." Check it out.

11. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

by Douglas Hofstadter

This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, is really too well-known to be on this list. But though many have acquired this book, fewer have actually read it cover to cover. Which is too bad - for it's author has the most playful mind to hit a page since Lewis Carroll.

It's a hard book to describe. There's never been any book quite like it. It's main thrust is to use the drawings of M. C. Escher and the music of J. S. Bach to illuminate Godel's Theorem, one of the strangest and most wonderful achievements in the history of mathematical thought. Along the way there are endless diversions into zen koans, thinking anthills, and the genetic code. Between each chapter is a Platonic dialogue between Achilles and the Tortoise (later joined by the Crab and his guest the Anteater) in which the characters argue over questions like "Which contains more information - a record, or the phonograph which plays it?" Each dialogue is different and one can be read either forward or backward!

If I were to be stranded on a desert island and could only bring five books with me, I would bring The I Ching, The OED, Moby Dick, Walden, and Godel, Escher, Bach.

12. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

by Robert Coover

This is the only book I've ever read which turns inside out with a single piece of punctuation. The punctuation mark in question is a colon; it occurs in a sentence on page seven. In the first six pages we seem to be at a baseball game as seen through the eyes of an accountant named Henry Waugh. The details are vividly described down to the gestures from the crowd and the smell of the hotdogs. But then we read this: "The dice rattled in Henry's fist, tumbled out on the kitchen table: crack! hard grounder."

The colon indicates a surpising but inescapable relationship between the rolling of the dice and the events taking place in Pioneer Park. This game, which seems so real, is really inside the head of J. Henry Waugh. Or is it Waugh who is too far inside the game? As the book progresses the game becomes more and more real, and our own grasp of reality begins to slip. And then, at the end of the book, things get really strange. Check it out.

13. The Green Child

by Herbert Read

The Green Child is, to put it simply, the strangest book on this list. The introduction and blurbs speak of an "other-worldly suspense" or an "unearthly, hypnotic radiance." Even a basic synopsis of the plot is almost too strange to convey.

Olivero, the president of an unnamed South American contry, arranges his own assassination and returns in disguise to the English village of his youth. He arrives in late evening with everyone asleep and discovers that the village stream now runs in the opposite direction, in fact, seems to run uphill. Intrigued, he follows it up to a deserted mill where he observes a man carrying a dead lamb into a room where a woman sits tied to a chair. He bursts in and unties the woman.

"It was then that he noticed a peculiarity in her flesh which explained her strange pallor. The skin was not quite white, but a faint green shade, the colour of a duck's egg. It was, moreover, an unusually transparent tegument, and through its pallor the branches of her veins and arteries spread, not blue and scarlet, but vivd green and golden. The nailes were pale blue, very like a blackbird's eggshell. The faint emanation of odour from her flesh was sweet and a little heavy, like the scent of violets. Olivero looked up at the man, who stood glowering against the wall. 'It is the Green Child!' he cried."

That is just the beginning. The story moves from the village, to the "pampas and plateaux of dream," to a world of crystal caves beneath a pool at end of the stream. First published in 1935, The Green Child is Herbert Read's only novel. It seems to have come out of nowhere and then faded into obscurity. But T. S. Eliot considered it one of the finest examples of English prose style of the twentieth century. Check it out.

14. Fantasia Mathematica

Edited by Clifton Fadiman

This collection includes short stories from a genre most people have never even heard of: mathematical fiction. Essays are here and poetry as well, from writers as diverse as Plato, Edgar Allen Poe, and Arthur C. Clarke. The stories, in particular, are wonderful and hard to find. Mathematical fiction is related to but distinct from science fiction, just as mathematics is distinct from physics. Mathematical stories are more pure, theoretical rather than applied.

Two of my favorites: In Robert Heinlein's "-And He Built a Crooked House" an earthquake collapses a house built in the shape of an unfolded tesseract. Chaos ensues when a married couple become trapped inside and experience the fourth dimension. Something similar happens in "A Subway Named Moebius" by A. J. Deutsch when the Boston subway system becomes so complicated that trains begin to disappear. A mathematics professor is called in to investigate. Check it out.

If you like Fantasia Mathematica, be sure to get Fadiman's companion volume, "The Mathematical Magpie" and a wonderful new anthology edited by William Frucht, "Imaginary Numbers."

15. Titus Groan

by Mervyn Peake

The Gormenghast Trilogy, of which Titus Groan is but the first volume, is well-known to serious fantasy afficiandos, but remains obscure to most readers, especially, I suspect, to most younger readers. It is a book quite unlike any other fantasy novel, the product of a more refined and troubled sort of mind. There are no swords or sorcery here, in fact none of the usual fantasy trappings except for a castle: the castle of Gormenghast itself, which is the central character. Its roots are not with the likes of Tolkien, but seem rather to derive from a mixture of Dickens and Kafka.

The book begins with rumors of the birth of Titus Groan, who will eventually become the earl and seventy-seventh lord of Gormenghast, a castle so enormous that it's more of a country than a building. We watch Titus grow up through the eyes of his servants and courtiers, endlessly entertwined Dickensian characters with names like Flay, Steerpike, and Rottcodd. The denizens of this dark and dusty world are caught in a calcified set of rituals and social obligations so ancient that they've lost all meaning. Titus is the element of change that sends a shiver through the frozen stones of this intricate, disturbing, and deeply realized world.

The first two books of the trilogy rise to the level of literature; the third is so strange that it caused me to suspect the mental health of its author. If you dare to read it, I can promise you that the castle of Gormenghast will remain in your subconscious long after you have forgotten its myriad of finely drawn inhabitants. Check it out.

16. The Compleat Enchanter

by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

This is the third fantasy novel on my list and the one I look back on with the most affection. It is embued with a wry sense of humor and a sophistication which it derives from it's literary sources: the Heimskringla, the Prose Edda, the Faerie Queene, Orlando Furioso, and even a nod to Coleridge's Kubla Khan. These splendid works of literature are explored and turned upside down by a cocky pair of 1940-era American psychology professors who apply the scientific method to the field of magic. Its authors are eccentric (I have a picture of them in their New York apartment wearing viking helmets), their premise is strange, and the results are nothing less than wonderful.

The Compleat Enchanter is actually a collection of three novellas; its authors later added another volume with two more adventures based on the Finnish Kalevala and on Celtic mythology. All of these adventures involve young professor Harold Shea and his older colleague Dr. Chalmers who perfect a method of transporting themselves to other planes of existence by capturing the essential logic of those worlds in a series of equations and then reading the equations out loud until they become dizzy. Both Shea and Chalmers eventually find love in these other worlds and have many perilous adventures.

If there is an emerging theme to this book list, it may be "left brain meets right brain." Like many of the other books on this list, The Compleat Enchanter mixes an analytical viewpoint with mystery, mythology, and romance. In fact, the second of its novellas is entitled "The Mathematics of Magic." Happily, this book is also rollicking good fun. Check it out.

17. The Pooh Perplex

by Frederick C. Crews

The full title is "The Pooh Perplex In Which It is Discovered that the True Meaning of the Pooh Stories is Not as Simple as is Usually Believed, But for Proper Elucidation Requires the Combined Efforts of Several Academicians of Varying Critical Persuasions." In fact, there are no less than twelve critical persuasions represented here, from Freudian to Feminist, all of them grimly fastened on the text of Winnie the Pooh.

The book consists of a dozen essays, each from a different school of criticism, each preceeded by a biographical sketch of its fictitious author. It is fascinating to see poor Pooh from so many perverse angles, and to see the pomposity and absurdity of each of those perspectives captured so effectively and with such wicked glee.

This one slim volume may well save its readers several years of graduate school. It's a unique book and a secret treasure for those who have ever inhabited the world of literary criticism. But it is so well done, and so diabolical, that I think almost anyone would enjoy it. Check it out.

18. Dragons - An Introduction to the Modern Infestation

by Pamela Wharton Blanpied

As I thumb through this book the page falls open to Plate XVII - Contents of Known Hoards. The four columns of this chart are headed with the last names of researchers; the rows contain items such as Gold, raw; wrought, 0-3oz; wrought, 3oz +; Gems, uncut; Ceramics; Mixed materials; and so forth. At the bottom is a caption: "Chart from Nagata Reports, 94. Used by permission."

Meticulous is the word that comes to mind. Every detail from the Weight of Dragons, Approximate (from Troutt, L. C., "Verinological Weight," American Zoological Anatomy) to the photographs of mud tracks ("The sinuous Trail of a dragon crawling across the mud skirting the eastern edge of the Wad Madani research area. Note the marks left by the wings touching the soft surface.") is meticulously recorded and presented in a professional and scientific manner. There's even a bibliography of works cited that runs to six pages.

Yet somehow, between the lines of this dry presentation, actual characters start to emerge and genuine stories, both touching and comical, are told. Like the Pooh Perplex, this book satirizes academics by studious imitation. But so complete is the illusion, and beneath it so warm and wry the heart of its author, that it soon becomes almost impossible not to believe in dragons. Check it out.

19. The Man Who Folded Himself

by David Gerrold

At first glance this would seem to be just another sci-fi time machine novel. But over the years it has stayed with me in a way few other books have. It certainly is a time machine novel; in fact, the cover boasts that it is "The last word in time machine novels." The author, who also wrote the classic Star Trek episode "The Trouble With Tribbles," takes all the paradoxes of time travel to the ultimate level. His protagonist even finds a way to give birth to himself!

But as Gerrold digs relentlessly deeper into the mysteries of time, he begins to uncover more and more insights about the nature of the soul, how the soul evolves, where it begins and ends, how the child becomes the father of the man. As the protagonist continues moving back and forth in time he encounters himself again and again, both his future selves and his past selves. He eventually begins to spend his spare time lounging around a swimming pool in a resort built by himself and completely inhabited by versions of himself at different ages. Here a younger self can sit in a lounge chair and chat with an older self about what is to come, and finally many selves can gather in hushed silence around their own deathbed.

The result of all this is much more than a science fiction novel. Dig deep enough into any mystery and you will eventually dig into all mysteries. This playful romp through a hall of mirrors achieves a surprising, strange, and wonderful depth. Check it out.

20. The Tolkien Reader

by J. R. R. Tolkien

The works of J.R.R. Tolkien had a huge effect on me as a boy. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over again, even taking careful notes on the Elvish language and other minutiae. I still regard his carefully crafted sentences as among the best in the language, excellent examples for any budding young writer. The Ring Trilogy, a relatively new and almost subversive text when I was a lad, is now a dusty old classic. Everyone has heard of it and knows that Tolkien was an Oxford Don, but few are aware that Tolkien was also a poet, playwright, artist, and a superb short story writer as well.

As I grow older, it's his short stories I particularly value. My second-favorite story, Smith of Wootton Major, is available elsewhere. The slim Tolkien Reader includes, as a companion piece to his indispensable essay "On Fairy Stories," my favorite of Tolkien's short stories, a peculiar little tale called "Leaf by Niggle."

Tolkien wrote this story to demonstrate his belief that fairy tales are for adults. This tale, his most openly religious story, presents such a compelling, gentle, wise, and balanced view of the afterlife that I've never been able to get it out of my head. I identify with his protagonist, Niggle, a minor artist who dreams of painting the perfect tree but somehow can barely manage a single leaf. His life is, like every other, an unfinished work of art. But when he is finally compelled to take a train away from his earthly existence he is, miraculously and gradually, given a chance to finish what he started. And when, finally healed, he walks away from his tree, farther up and into the mountains, the reader experiences what Tolkien calls "eucatastrophe." Check it out.

Want more? See 20 Even Stranger and More Wonderful Books.