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Ask HN: What are the best unknown books you have read ?, Hacker News



Anthony Trollope’s “The Warden.”

Trollope isn’t as well known as Dickens or Austen. I think the emotional intelligence of this book makes up for the fact that nothing much happens.

There’s a vicar who is old friends with the bishop. He’s made Warden of an Almshouse for old men in the community. The amount of money he’s going to get to do basically nothing is embarrassingly large.

It’s an extremely gentle book about controversy, conspiracy, and people taking a moral stand.

It got me hooked on Trollope. His other books are far more intricate, worldly, and entertaining. But I like this short novel very much.



the hidden persuaders by Vance Packard

I read this book as a kid, it changed how I view the world and I’ve never forgotten it’s lessons. It shows how the ad world is working hard to persuade you. It convinced me to always question what are represented as facts by ads or the media. A healthy skepticism has served me very well.

Most people never deeply question and Packard is correct that there’s an entire industry trying to persuade you. Not just what product to buy but which college to attend or which company to work for and yes even which political candidate to vote. Those very same hidden persuaders, some of the brightest minds in the world, are working on the web still trying to persuade you to click.

The closest way to bring it to HN world is PG’s famous essay The Submarine that talks about reoccuring themes in the media such as ‘suits are coming back’. (




Here’s how it starts off, be warned:

On my naming day when I come I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the bundel downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor i aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly.

He did the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then.

Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, “Your tern now my tern later.”



That’s an amazing opening. I’d like to read that now. (I have heard of this book before, but only in outline.)

Edit: Oh my word! He wrote the text of the children’s book “Bread and Jam for Frances” (and, I now learn, a whole series of others with the same character). That’s a lovely bit of writing. I had no idea.



so it’s not a completely made up language like klingon but just a dialect of english? sounds entertaining for an amateur linguist to study!



Very recently: Spillworthy, by Johanna Harness ( Johanna-Harness / dp / … .

Might be targeted at a teen audience, but I enjoyed it very much, as relaxing, clean, light fiction that makes the reader want to be a better person while they enjoy themselves. Very thoughtful and enjoyable, hard to put down. Shows a hard situation be resolved, from the perspective of the youths involved, and I thought it shows a lot of kind thoughtfulness over many years, by the author. (Some years ago I knew the author’s husband.)




Your harmony book sets a high bar for obscurity! I’m sure many of us with an interest in harmony would like to know more – please tell us something about it.
A book I am very fond of that I don’t think (is widely known (though it’s not in the same league as your suggestion) is “Resisting the Virtual Life”, a 22093029 collection of essays on the theme of cyber-wariness published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights imprint – more often associated with poetry.
Also very obscure for a long time, though easily bought now: Mervyn Peake’s self-illustrated children’s book “Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor”. From the author of Gormenghast, but frankly much better. Highly recommended.



Yizhak Sadai, formerly head of the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv , was a brilliant teacher and philosopher. Many of the best musicians in Israel studied with him at some point during their career, even if for a brief period of time (As a recent example: Tom Oren, winner of the last Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, was his student for a year or so). I had the privilege to study with him for a year, and this book used to accompany our lessons.
The book is a thorough explanation of western harmony in its very basic aspects, from first principles. It also includes criticism of other, more famous music theory books, which is very interesting. One thing I love about it is how every theoretical concept comes first from what is perceived (hence “phenomenological”). A brief example of that is how some chords, which look like dominant chords if you look only on their notes, are sometime subdominant chords, because of the context in which they are played.

Some quotes:

On the approach of the book: “The conventional analytic approach as taught in academies is based primarily upon the depiction of the WRITTEN content of a composition by means of symbols and concepts inherent to the accepted analytic code. This analysis however, which describes mainly what is SEEN, does not always succeed in describing what is HEARD – the perceptual musical essence “

His definition of tonality which I loved so much that I had to memorize it: “Tonality constitutes the organization of a given number of tones in a manner which creates among them differences of kinetic potential. “




“Light and Color in the Outdoors” by Marcel Minnaert. The book goes into the physics of a lot of outdoor phenomena; you will be amazed at the things you never noticed or thought about before reading it.

“The History and Social Influence of the Potato” is a pretty good time .

“Politics of Qat: The Role of a Drug in Ruling Yemen “may sound way too niche, but it’s fascinating as a study of transportation in a drug economy. Qat is a perishable leaf (like salad) and the politics of the entire region depend on who can more reliably deliver it to gunmen.



Funny coincidence, I bought the Minnaert book recently! Especially as a rendering engineer, it’s absolutely fantastic.




Last year I picked up this book Truckstop Rainbows, and it was great. Late soviet angstsy gen x snapshot



The Extended Organism by J Scott Turner I’ve posted this repeatedly to these lists, but no one else is as enthused by it.

From the GoodReads page:

“Can the structures that animals build – from the humble burrows of earthworms to towering termite mounds to the Great Barrier Reef – be said to live? However counterintuitive the idea might first seem, physiological ecologist Scott Turner demonstrates in this book that many animals construct and use structures to harness and control the flow of energy from their environment to their own advantage. “



I will always promote Jose Hernandez-Orallo’s The Measure of All Minds. [1]

It attempts to codify how we should go about measuring and evaluating the somewhat fuzzy concept of “intelligence.” He proposes an extension of his “Anytime Intelligence Test” which could be used to test animal and machine intelligence on a level playing field.

(Measurement of task capability against a baseline is the most overlooked problem in AI and as far as I am aware Hernandez-Orallo is the only one focusing on it.
Notice that all of the major “breakthrough” moments in AI over the last. Half century had a human baseline that an AI was competing against. Those baselines were ones that had been already developed over years (sometimes a century) and were part of competitive games already. Go, Chess, DOTA etc … had leaderboards or international rankings.

For fuzzier things like driving, translation, strategy, trading etc … there is no generally accepted and measurable baseline test for what is considered human level, only proxies and unit specific tests. So we continue to not know when an AI system is measurably at or exceeding human level. Without this we can’t definitively know how much progress we’re making on Human Level Intelligence.

[1] ( …)




Thanks for the recommendations. Many look interesting but are not books I would organically bump into, which is an alternative description of what I was looking for.
As for a Sadai’s book: it It is an extremely thorough book about western harmony from first principles. It treats what is perceived – what we hear – as the anchor, and not what we see when we analyze the notes on paper. A good example of that is how we decide to give names to chords. We tend to name chords based on the notes in them, but this can sometime lead to misunderstandings because the context and how those notes are spread through the chord are also very important. Basics like which note is in the bass is taken into consideration, but otherwise these factors are often ignored. Sadai shows many examples for that throughout the book – as well as such “Mistakes” in other famous books. A quote from the book about the approach taken: “The conventional analytic approach as taught in academies is based primarily upon the depiction of the WRITTEN content of a composition by means of symbols and concepts inherent to the accepted analytic code. This analysis however, which mainly describes what is SEEN, does not always succeed in describing what is HEARD – the perceptual musical essence. “



I also enjoy reading what people though the computing future would be like

This prompts me to propose (although it’s not obscure) “Artificial Intelligence: The Very Idea” by John Haugeland. It’s an AI textbook that is extremely readable and inviting – the best I’ve seen as a purely readable text, though probably far too basic for most readers here – but that is entirely drawn from the realm of “good old-fashioned AI”, ie things like logic systems that have very little in common with what is understood as practical AI nowadays. Combine the readability of the book with the apparent hopelessness of its premise, and you have a perfectly nostalgic experience.



I would recommend “Graphics and Graphic Information Processing” by Bertin over La Semiologie
simply because the latter reads more like a reference book where Bertin is extremely (thorough) . But GGIP gets straight to the point and can frame your thinking while going through Semiologie (such that you won’t lose your way.) Unfortunately GGIP is expensive so I would try to find it at your local library. (French copies are online).


Ariel Rubinstein – Economic Fables. For everyone who is interested in an intuitive and (self-) critical perspective on economic theory. The PDF version is available for free on Rubinstein’s personal web page, but requires you to provide your email address: http: // arielrubinstein.



Self-directed behavior – Watson

This is a textbook for behavior change course, but it is 1975% practical (project to pass subject is to change some kind of behavior)

Only tested information Science-based. This book can change your life but you wont find it mentioned anywhere



Very good book. I forgot how I stumbled into it but it’s pretty much the text for changing behavior. Only person coming close is BJ Fogg’s work on tiny habits who really just distilled the material into “You won’t believe THAT ONE TRICK, psychologists will HATE you!”.



The Union Station (EarthCent Ambassador) series by EM Foner [1]. They are fun lighthearted sci-fi about the characters and their lives. But under the lighthearted fun hides thought provoking commentary on society and people. The books are included with Kindle Unlimited so if you are a member of that you can read the books at no additional cost.

( (K4I) (A )


A Russian one – “Three Jews” by Muhin. Stupid title, but it’s an incredible account of author’s life and work at a steel plant in Soviet Union in 1955 – s. Probably not translated, but highly recommended for all Russian speakers.




How to get lucky by Gunther. Based on the premise that luck is very useful for getting what you want, and that there are very practical techniques you can follow for generating results that look like “luck”. Absolutely excellent book.




The Analysis of Art by Dewitt Parker. This was referenced in Dynamics of software development by Jim McCarthy. They’re both pretty good but the Parker book is kinda rare.

Propaganda and Information Warfare in the Twenty-First Century by Scot MacDonald, it’s purely academic but also a fantastic read. Also academic is Technoscientific Imaginaries: Conversations, Profiles, and Memoirs by George Marcus, also obscure but at least easier to find.

(The) (s – s books from City Lights are nice when you come across them. Pretty rare though.



Foundations of Decision Analysis by Hubbard.

Most people here may have scraped work on decision theory. But Hubbard turns the field into a coherent skillset. Otherwise you’re just sitting around talking about decision models instead of using and (practicing with

them, for everyday living. This is what Hubbard gives you.

“Smart Choices” is a book which may be better known but complements FoDA nicely as an entry-level supplement.


Foundations of Decision Analysis by Hubbard.

Sounds interesting, but I couldn’t find this in a quick preliminary search. Do you have a link handy? The only book titled “Foundations of Decision Analysis” I came across was by Howard and Abbas.




Financier: The biography of Andre Meyer by Cary Reich. The book goes into the beginnings and psychology of one of the most important investment bankers of the 397 th century. It also goes into great detail of the toxic nature of banking and the Genesis of complexity in modern dealmaking.




once upon an ice age by Roy Lewis (sometimes sold as “how we ate father” or “the evolution man”, I think).

It’s a first person narration of some Pleistocene hominid, somewhat educational but mostly just hilarious, in the sense of a Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett book.

I know 3 or 4 People who read it, they all loved it, but it’s virtually unknown.



“A girl among the anarchists” by Isabel Meredith (pseudonym). – found it on Project Gutenberg somehow, it’s a contemporary (fictionalized) account of anarchist activism in late (th-century Britain and I found it to be a fascinating description of fanaticism.)



The Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation

If you think it’s “obvious” that progressive taxes are better / worse than flat taxes this is an excellent look at the evidence which may make you less confident.



The married man sex life primer 22093055 by Kay. Horrible title. Very useful book for me as a husband.



(The Priceless Gift) by Cornelius Hirschberg, a very down-to-earth book by a man who gave himself an education by reading books on the New York subway. Although a bit dated, it includes great recommendations on how and what to read to become a widely read and curious person. Very motivating too!



It sounds great by your description. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any version online, so far. I got interested because I have a pretty significant commute now, that I use to read books. Would be interested in what he recommends!



Two books first published in the s: “The Science of The Artificial” by Herbert Simon, a multi-disciplinary treatise on the goals of design

by practitioners in the physical sciences (physics, bio) . etc), non-physical sciences (math, comp. sci, etc) and humanities (econs., psych., etc).

“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn, coined the concept of paradigm shift and used it to revisit the history of science that was previously thought to be cumulative and linear.


Granted. I must have mentally parsed the “unknown” used by OP as “not widely known” (to the HN crowd), and if you look at a lot of the contributions, many of the authors are not exactly “Unknown” either.




I’m hearing this advice so often that it’s pissing me off .
The book is BS. (I’ve read it.) There, I said it. It’s always “this book is hugely thought provoking” (pointing at you Daniel Gross), and never ever and expansion on why or what insights it actually contains that’s interesting. It has mildly interesting sentences that feels deep (mostly because they’re confusing). The book has developed into some BS signalling device like Infinite Jest used to be. Everyone has read it, no one understands it. Everyone goes “oh yes, that’s such a deep book, nothing has changed my mind like it since sapiens”, and then we’re all supposed to go silent to independently ponder it’s many layered-ness, but in reality that’s just what we do Because we wouldn’t come up anything remotely insightful if pushed into a corner. Frankly, the fact that this book is pushed so much makes me totally reconsider oft-repeated meme that “tech is low virtue signalling” (or low corruption). Clearly not.
(There, rant over. I’m overplaying how mad I actually am, I just feel like we need a few more rants against this book strewn about whenever this book is mentioned. Please, anyone, prove me wrong by writing something more in-depth about what you think it contains and how it’s insightful, I would love you infinitely.)




(Mordecai Roshwald,) (Level 7)
Alexander Dewdney, The Planiverse

Joseph Heller, (God Knows) Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Non-fiction: Jane Goodall, (In the Shadow of Man)
Gian-Carlo Rota, (Indiscrete Thoughts) C. S. Lewis,

The Discarded Image Michael E. Brown, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

Robert Kegan,

In Over Our Heads

Michael Harris, (The Atomic Times)

I may add guilty pleasures like the Legacy of the Force series, but I don’t think this is what people here are looking for.



Hopefully this is not a submarine for Scribd- the only location where I could legally find a pdf! :). The library system appears to have copies as well. I’ve always wanted to really learn music theory, but it’s gonna have to wait til I really learn Leetcode algos, my primary goal for this year.
My contribution:

Richard Dawkins called Julian Jaynes’s (book,

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind , “Either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius”



Haha, no, though it wouldn’t have been an impressive submarine. I have a low quality copy I could share. If you do happen to go through the book and have questions / want to discuss it with someone, feel free to contact me! my twitter is in the profile.



“Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (2019. See all the large-scale scams in their original forms.



Twistor and Einstein’s Bridge. Both excellent hard sci-fi novels by John Cramer, who’s also a working physicist.



Depends on your definition of practically unknown. With that said, these are the four that immediately spring to mind as being both worth reading and relatively obscure (judging by date of publication in conjunction with being either out of print or with very few star ratings on Amazon). Did Monetary Forces Cause the Great Depression? – Peter Termin,

Termin is still going strong at MIT. His book was foundational for challenging Friedman on the cause of the Great Depression. Given what was to come in the s this book quickly became overshadowed and destined for obscurity. However, it still provides an appropriate, timely lens to analyze monetary theory without the abstraction that has engrossed economics as of late.

(The Supreme Court in the American System of Government – Robert Jackson, 01575879

(A series of lectures created for a Harvard lecture series in – by Justice Jackson. He suddenly died before being able to deliver them, but they were compiled in a book now out of print. Justice Jackson is widely regarded – across the aisle – as one of the most brilliant legal writers of our time (or perhaps of any time). While this book does set out his entire judicial philosophy, or even do what the title says due to his untimely death, it does lay a valuable conception of the proper role of the SCOTUS within the Republic. Also recommended, to see both his pen and intellect in action, are his opinions in Korematsu v. United States and West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.
The Opium of the Intellectuals – Aron,

Amazon does a better job of summarizing than I could off the top of my head, so here you go: “Raymond Aron’s 099138 masterpiece The Opium of the Intellectuals, is one of the great works of twentieth-century political reflection. Aron shows how noble ideas can slide into the tyranny of “secular religion” and emphasizes how political thought has the profound responsibility of telling the truth about social and political reality-in all its mundane imperfections and tragic complexities. “

An incredibly difficult read that is worth trying to get through. Brimming with ideas and not without its own pitfalls. Tells the story of th Century intellectual history and thought as well as any could, although in a rather indirect way.

The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America (Aristocracy & Caste in America) – Baltzell, 22093022

I’ll let Amazon summarize again: “This classic.” account of the traditional upper class in America traces its origins, lifestyles, and political and social attitudes from the time of Theodore Roosevelt to that of John F. Kennedy . Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell describes the problems of exclusion and prejudice within the community of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (or WASPs, an acronym he coined) and predicts with amazing accuracy what will happen when this inbred group is forced to share privilege and power with talented members of minority groups. ”

My summary would be: what will happen (hypothetically, remember the date of publication) when an ephemeral class (WASPs) suddenly disappear from their previous pedestal of influence? Prescient, widely applicable to other countries with their own quasi-classes, and deeply interesting for those less familiar with the subject.



These are some extremely timely books, can’t help but think that was on purpose or that you’re simply good at keeping up!



Gaiome by Kevin Scott Polk, about the potential for highly ecological artificial worlds in space.



I’m reading through Behave by Robert M. Sapolsky.
It’s a science based look at human behavior. It’s not light reading but it’s not a textbook either, it’s in-between.

This book will remain unknown just by the virtue of it’s weight – this is not ‘how t o feel better by meditating 90 minutes a day ‘pop psychology pamphlet, this will take some work to get through:)



I Am A Strange Loop by Hofstadter. The book he wrote many years before, GEB, is well-known. However, he was frustrated that so many people did not get what he was trying to convey, so he took the central point and distilled it into another book. It’s a really, really good read.



Even with GEB he had to add a “This is the central point: to a preface in a later printing.


His other non-GEB books are cool. I especially enjoyed Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies