Cheering for the Unsung: The Specific Joy of Reading Hidden Gems

Last year I read a book that I have been trying to explain to people ever since. It’s big and sprawling and meticulous in its world-building; it’s personal and intimate and strange and wild; it’s full of secrets and mysteries and things that need uncovering, but every one of those details feels vital to the story the author is telling. I loved it. I raved about it. And I have yet to mention it to one single other person who’s read it. 

City of the Uncommon Thief is, in a word, underrated. And while I would never wish underrated status on any author or any book, there is something about it—about loving the unsung and unawarded, the underappreciated and yet beloved—that acts as bookish catnip for a certain kind of reader. Sure, we can join in all the conversations about A Song of Ice and Fire; we have read and absolutely adored The Broken Earth; we are fluent in bestselling YA SFF; we got through at least the first Dune and we probably love, like really love, The Lord of the Rings.

But those aren’t necessarily the books we most want to talk about.

It’s hard, always, to define what qualifies a book as “underrated.” One reader’s totally unheard of and beloved book is the book that another reader has had recommended to them a dozen times. We live in overlapping bubbles, spheres of influence, pockets of the internet. A title I see mentioned online several times a day might not have crossed your screen—yet.

On the other hand, it’s easy to recognize the ones that don’t fit this bill. They’re bestsellers; they’re multiple award winners; they’re sleepers now blowing up on BookTok or flying off shelves thanks to a series adaptation. I like to read them because I like to read good books, but also because I like to know things. I want to understand what everyone is raving about, and also to find my own ways to love popular things. I read all of A Song of Ice and Fire between seasons one and two of Game of Thrones. I read all the Twilight books (and still regret not making a chart of the different words used to describe Edward Cullen, and the number of times each word appears). I’m omnivorous where bookish popularity is concerned.

But loving those books feels different

If you ask the internet why people love to root for underdogs, you will get a wide variety of answers. You will then have to wade through a lot of commentary on sports that is fascinating, though somewhat difficult to apply to a bookish scenario in which there are no teams or tournaments or winners or losers—just books that are, or in some cases just seem, more or less popular or successful. It’s certainly not about schadenfreude; it can be about wishing for the world to be just, for all good books to be loved in good measure. It’s definitely not about not getting my hopes up. (I love getting my hopes up.) But loving to find underrated books still feels related to rooting for the underdogs. They’re not losers. They just haven’t been properly appreciated yet.

There was a time when publishing loved to talk about “discoverability,” which meant—so far as I understand it—publishers wanted to figure out how to make readers discover the books they wanted them to discover. On the reader side of things, though, I think discoverability—or maybe just discovery—is something else entirely. It’s that thrill of something new, something unexpected, something you found when you weren’t even necessarily looking for it. It’s falling in love with a book you picked up on a whim because the cover or title was nifty. It feels different than the simple joy of handing a widely praised bestseller handed to you. It kind of feels like learning a spell, or a secret, except that it might be a secret you want to shout about to anyone who will listen.

It feels like having something to champion—and finding something that might need a champion.

Maybe this feeling can be chalked up to reading too many fantasy stories at too impressionable an age. I can’t possibly be anyone’s champion at the joust, therefore I will find books to love and proclaim about, even if I’m only proclaiming to my nearest and dearest! Or, alternately, it comes from being a music fan who came up around the edges of punk. I never bought into the very tired arguments about selling out—as with books, a formerly unknown band that gets big is still that band you fell in love with when you heard their first single—but I did learn to appreciate the unknown and the unsung. A very different kind of joy exists in a tiny, sticky-floored venue than in an arena packed to the rafters and exploding with fireworks.

The first time this love of the unsung felt useful was when I was a bookseller. It became practical to have read different books than my coworkers, to always be looking for something new and not-yet-read to be able to recommend, something that veered off on a different path than my colleagues’ reading journeys. The more widely read we were, as a staff, the better prepared we were to satisfy any request for a recommendation. I could talk to kids about middle grade alternate histories and press Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing on anyone who told me they wanted something moody, maybe a little weird, but gorgeously written. I could take on every “My granddaughter likes The Hunger Games, so what should I get her?” request with a whole array of recommendations depending on what, exactly, the kid liked about that series.

It can, though, be lonely out there, shaking your little pom-pom for the books you want everyone to read. Sometimes I buy extra copies, just in case I find someone to give a book to. (I never pass up a copy of Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber or Franny Billingsley’s Chime, which manages to feel underrated despite being a National Book Award finalist.) Sometimes I just talk at friends until they cave. (At least one of them also fell in love with City of the Uncommon Thief.) Sometimes you love a book by an author who is generally admired, but your favorite is rarely the title that comes up when people talk about them. (It’s not Feersum Endjinn’s fault that it was so hard to find for so long!). Sometimes I go looking for the other people who love the book online, as if we might form our own little fan clubs. 

And sometimes, you just wait for everyone else to catch up. Don’t be smug when that happens, though. Don’t be the I-told-you-sos and I-loved-it-when folks standing guard around the barriers. Your early-adopter love is still yours. Hold it close, and then open the door and let the new readers in. 

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.

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