20 Even Stranger and More Wonderful Books

My oldest friend, Paul Nicholson, is a more accomplished reader than I am. In fact, he is the most far-ranging and eccentric reader I know. When I first told him about my project to identify 20 strange and wonderful books he immediately began working on a list of his own. Below is the happy result.

Paul has not yet provided witty blurbs for each book, but I have added a brief synopsis for each one and links to Amazon and elsewhere. True readers will find this a treasure trove, the distillation of over 30 years of relentless exploration. The photograph was taken on Ellesmere Island, a few hundred miles from the North Pole (hence the unusual reading jacket).


1. An Anecdoted Typography of Chance

by Daniel Spoerri and friends

A map with rigourous descriptions of objects lying around on a table in the author's room. Several other artists become involved in an expanding web of associations that soon gets completely out of control. Serious strangeness. Check it out.

2. Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language

by Douglas Hofstadter

Eighty-eight(!) wildly diverse translations of the same short medieval French poem. This very personal meditation on the subtleties of translation brims over with all the puzzles and musings you would expect from the author of Godel, Escher, Bach. A strange and wonderful mind at play. Check it out.

3. A Void

by Georges Perec

A murder mystery without a single occurance of the letter 'e'. Absence upon absence, meta-absence, and much more. The translator of the English edition, Gilbert Adair, may be even more of an insane genius than the author. Check it out.

4. Mornings Like This : Found Poems

by Annie Dillard

A collection of 'Found Poems' - poems created from bits of broken text taken from a variety of unlikely sources. A strange book from a wonderful poet. Check it out.

5. Fields for President

by W.C. Fields

Most people have heard of comedian W.C Fields, but few know that he ran for president in 1940. This book, one of the few he ever wrote, has a timeless appeal for curmudgeons, suspicious voters, and anyone who has ever had difficulty with the I.R.S. Check it out.

6. Diary of a Country Parson

by James Woodeforde

A lifetime of droll observations from a keen observer of human foibles in the eighteenth century. Ten volumes condensed into one. Check it out.

7. The Singing Creek Where The Willows Grow

by Opal Whiteley

The haunting childhood diary of a very unusual 6-year-old girl, a best-seller in 1920 which subsequently became mired in scandal. The diary itself is unlike anything else ever written, Thoreauvian in its unfettered openness to nature, but suffused with a mysticism (and schizophrenia) worthy of William Blake. The biography and afterword by Benjamin Hoff (The Tao of Pooh) is as remarkable as the diary itself. Check it out.

8. The Witches of Karres

by James H. Schmitz

Vatches, worm weather, and grik dogs are among the wonders encountered by a merchant captain and the three young witches he rescues in this tale of interplanetary hijinks. Many sci-fi/fantasy readers rate this book as their all-time favorite. Check it out.

9. Gilbert : A Comedy of Manners

by Judith Martin

Miss Manners tries her hand at fiction. The perfect find for etiquette groupies with a taste for Washington cocktail parties and stories with a moral. Check it out.

10. A Voyage to Arcturus

by David R. Lindsay

The strangest book on this list. Is it Calvnist mysticism, a sci-fi verson of the Book of the Dead, Tolkien on acid, or a vivid dream about good vs. evil? Some people re-read this book every year and carry it next to their hearts. But most who reach the final page will say: Whoa. What was this guy smok'n? Check it out.

11. Vessel of Wrath: The Life and Times of Carrie Nation

by Robert Lewis Taylor

Paul collects anything written by Robert Lewis Taylor. He was hard pressed to pick just one, but this witty biography of the fiery temperance leader is arguably Taylor's strangest work. Check it out.

12. History of My Life

by Casanova

Giacomo Casanova, that is. His twelve volume epic memoir is so seductive, and so satisfying, readers who finish all 3600 pages will have great difficulty finding anything to top it. Check it out.

13. Christmas Crackers

by John Julius Norwich

For most people, or at least for most Brits, a Christmas Cracker is a firecracker with toy inside opened during Chistmas dinner. But for friends of John Norwich, a Christmas Cracker is a collection of strange little factoids and odd bits of found text gathered up each Christmas. These might include Adam and Eve conversing in palindromes, Saudi Arabian air raid precautions, revolving door etiquette, and orders to the dancers of the Paris Opera to perform without their underwear (from Napolean). They were originally published for a small circle of friends, but the first book length collection can still be found through the web. Check it out. Also look for More Christmas Crackers, published once a decade.

14. The Journal of Albion Moonlight

by Kenneth Patchen

A surreal anti-war novel written at the height of World War II by a poet steeped in the tradition of William Blake. This is another of those rare books that people describe as both strange and life-changing. Check it out.

15. A Story Like the Wind

by Laurens van Der Post

A magical tale about the bushman of the Kalihari and the coming of age of a settler boy during a time of political upheaval in late colonial Africa. Gripping, beautiful, poetic. Check it out.

16. Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook

by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne

A cookbook/memoir with chapters on how to make toast or boil rice. Paul has an extensive collection of cookbooks and books about cooking - this is the one that bubbled to the top. Check it out.

17. Wizard of Earthsea

by Ursula K. Le Guin

The first book of the Earthsea series. I'm glad Paul put this on his list because it's one of my all-time favorites. The wizard's school on the island of Roke is to Hogwarts what the Sorbonne is to junior high. Strange and wonderful? I've read it so many times it doesn't seem strange to me anymore, but it is probably the most wonderful book I know. Check it out.

18. Running After Antelope

by Scott Carrier

The newest book on this list, a collection of essays from Harpers and National Public Radio. Those who have heard his pieces on 'This American Life' know Scott Carrier's talent for quirky introspection. This book chronicles his strange habit of chasing antelope. Check it out.

19. Sinbad and Me

by Kin Platt

An award-winning juvenile mystery featuring architecture, rare coins, and Sinbad the bulldog. A childhood favorite of many readers who are now clamoring to get it back into print. Check it out.

20. High Bonnet - A Novel of Epicurean Adventures

by Idwal Jones

Urbane 1945 novel about food, those who cook it and those who eat it. The protagonist eventually earns the towering hat of a chef de cuisine and lingers over many extravagent dishes along the way. Unabashed in its pursuit of flavor. Check it out.