The best books about absolutely arcane corners of human existence

Who am I?

Following mysterious trails and uncovering esoteric stories: it’s what I love to do, and it’s also what I love to read about. Before I released Extreme Music, I wrote extensively about unusual music subcultures and audiological anomalies, for example artists who put out hourlong blocks of unchanging white noise. I’ve learned that the most interesting ideas – and tales – exist in these outer fringes.

I wrote...

Extreme Music: From Silence to Noise and Everything In Between

By Michael Tau,

Book cover of Extreme Music: From Silence to Noise and Everything In Between

What is my book about?

Extreme Music is a deep look at several extreme corners of the musical underground. Through interviews and original research, it examines several different categories of “extreme” – extremes of volume, tempo, duration, and vulgarity, as well as extreme packaging and even music that is entirely unplayable. This includes contemporary music released on floppy disk, compositions that are centuries long, and record sleeves that come soaked in blood – to name just a few.

The book asks and answers the questions: Are all sounds music? Is silence music? Does a plate of rotting food once cataloged, packaged, and sold by a distributor qualify as music?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali

Why did I love this book?

This book tells the story of Craig Smith, a musician and songwriter who had a brush with fame in the sixties before developing mental health issues while on the hippie trail in Afghanistan. Thereafter, he adopted an unusual alter ego, Maitreya Kali, under which he recorded two bizarre and now excruciatingly rare albums. Through years of research, author Mike Stax tells the story by patching together court and medical records, interviews with associates, and other shreds of data, even trying to track down Smith, who had been homeless for many years.

This is a sad but captivating work that uncovers the mysterious story of an obscure cranny of music history.

By Mike Stax,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Swim Through the Darkness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A successful young songwriter in 1960s becomes derailed by LSD and resulting madness.
Craig Smith was a 1960s golden boy – good looking, charismatic, outgoing; a preternaturally gifted musician and songwriter whose songs were recorded by some of the biggest names in entertainment – Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, the Monkees. His future success seemed assured, until an unexpected turn of events plunged him into a terrifying darkness. Clean-cut Craig Smith became Maitreya Kali, the self-proclaimed psychedelic Messiah. He laid out his poignant, disturbing schizophrenic vision on a sprawling self-released double-album before disappearing completely. Author Mike Stax spent fifteen years piecing…

Book cover of A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies

Why did I love this book?

The filmic counterpart to Amanda Petrusich’s exposé on collectors of 78 RPM records, Do Not Sell at Any Price, this book uncovers the eccentric characters who have devoted their free time to collecting theatrical prints of movies, often risking harm (and jail time) in the process. One highlight is a profile of Mike Vraney, the man who founded Something Weird Video, a film distributor famous for re-releasing arcane Z-movies and shock films. The self-professed owner of the “largest sexploitation archive on Earth,” his stories, and those of a range of other specialized collectors, make this book a worthy compendium of a unique subculture.

By Dennis Bartok, Jeff Joseph,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Thousand Cuts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Thousand Cuts is a candid exploration of one of America's strangest and most quickly vanishing subcultures. It is about the death of physical film in the digital era and about a paranoid, secretive, eccentric, and sometimes obsessive group of film-mad collectors who made movies and their projection a private religion in the time before DVDs and Blu-rays.

The book includes the stories of film historian/critic Leonard Maltin, TCM host Robert Osborne discussing Rock Hudson's secret 1970s film vault, RoboCop producer Jon Davison dropping acid and screening King Kong with Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore East, and Academy Award-winning film…

Book cover of The Twisting Lane: Some Sex Offenders

Why did I love this book?

Tony Parker was a British writer dedicated to telling the stories of marginalized members of society. Many of his books took the form of transcripts of interviews with murders, career criminals, lighthouse keepers, and occupants of social housing. This book was his most controversial: interviews with institutionalized sex offenders, who tell their stories in their own words. Parker was skilled at getting people to broach shameful topics and talk candidly about their lives, and this book is no exception. His transcripts capture each speaker’s unique parlance, as well as the offenders’ varying levels of self-reflection. Published in 1969, there is even the sad story of a man who was imprisoned for homosexuality.

By Tony Parker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Twisting Lane as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few crimes provoke such outrage and upset as the sex offence, making the subject - including the problems it poses to our society and criminal justice system - a natural one for sociologist Tony Parker, whose work consistently shed light into dark corners of human behaviour.

The Twisting Lane, first published in 1969, presents the testimonies of eight men aged between 20 and 70 who had been convicted - most of them repeatedly - for eight different types of offence, from assault or rape of adults or minors, to indecent exposure and 'living on immoral earnings'. Each man offers, in…

Book cover of Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief

Why did I love this book?

I promise you my publisher isn’t strong-arming me into including this (now long out of print) book – which I stumbled upon years before I linked up with them. A spin-off of Kossy’s zine of the same name, Kooks is a kind-spirited examination of several conspiracy theorists, aspiring cult leaders, and miscellaneous cranks. In each profile, Kossy does her best to meticulously research her topic, digging deep into piles of rambling documents so that you don’t have to. Who can forget Francis E. Dec, sworn enemy of the Mad Deadly Worldwide Communist Gangster Computer God, who mailed out unintelligible hand-typed diatribes to media outlets for years?

By Donna Kossy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kooks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A rich compendium of looniness!

Songs in the Key of Z

By Irwin Chusid,

Book cover of Songs in the Key of Z

Why did I love this book?

The definitive book on outsider musicians, from The Shaggs to Jandek to the hyper-obscure likes of Y. Bhekhirst, who left copies of his outrageously bizarre cassette album, Hot In the Airport, at several NYC record stores before permanently disappearing into thin air. A detailed work that required copious original research to dig up murky facts about obscure musicians, it has been an inspiration to me as a writer. In fact, in my book I dedicate an entire chapter to outsider musicians of the digital age, in obvious homage to this magical tome.

By Irwin Chusid,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Songs in the Key of Z as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Outsider musicians can be the product of damaged DNA, alien abduction, drug fry, demonic possession, or simply sheer obliviousness. This book profiles dozens of outsider musicians, both prominent and obscure—figures such as The Shaggs, Syd Barrett, Tiny Tim, Jandek, Captain Beefheart, Daniel Johnston, Harry Partch, and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy—and presents their strange life stories along with photographs, interviews, cartoons, and discographies. About the only things these self-taught artists have in common are an utter lack of conventional tunefulness and an overabundance of earnestness and passion. But, believe it or not, they’re worth listening to, often outmatching all contenders for…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in rock music, film, and curiosity?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about rock music, film, and curiosity.

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