Mark Forsyth The Unknown Unknown:
bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted
Icon Books 2014
As Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration declared — and I paraphrase —
1. There are known knowns: things we know that we know.
2. There are known unknowns: things we now know that we don’t know.
3. There are unknown unknowns: things we do not know that we don’t know.
On the basis of the last category Mark Forsyth, author of The Etymologicon, has penned this 24-page essay, here published as a booklet, on the delights of lighting on books you had no idea existed. He declares early that there are “books that I’ve never heard of; and, because I’ve never heard of them, I’ve no idea that I haven’t read them.” He’s read Great Expectations: that’s a category 1 book, a known known. He hasn’t read War and Peace, so that’s category 2, a known unknown. And, though he’d love to name some books that he hasn’t heard of, he can’t — because he’s never heard of them. They’re the unknown unknowns of the title.
In an ongoing discussion on Goodreads which began a few years ago one reader noted that one of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels — Fire and Hemlock — “mentions a number of books that DWJ probably liked herself.” This noted children’s author, as many authors do, had included quite a few semi-autobiographical details in her fiction; and in Fire and Hemlock one character, Tom, lends or recommends a number of titles to the young Polly. They’re all intended to obliquely reference traditional ballads like Tam Lin, which is about a human rescued from the Queen of the Fairies by his own true love.
In a review of Fire and Hemlock which I posted both here and on Goodreads I agreed: “Jones’ book references — quite apart from their relevance to the plot (as when Tom insists that Polly reads the book on fairy tales he has sent her) — must be a good indicator of Diana’s own childhood and student reading matter …
You might expect, from the title, that this is a culinary offering from the award-winning novelist, but you’d be wrong. The dustcover informs us that this is
A COLLECTION of FANCIFUL, SATIRICAL and SURPRISING parodies, squibs and pastiches inspired by THE WRITE STUFF on RADIO 4
and so it turns out to be. The whole text of over 100 pages is essentially tongue-in-cheek, from the purported etymology of pistache (“a friendly spoof or parody of another’s work” from a possible “cross between pastiche and p**stake”) to its invented author biography (“born in Vilnius in 1969 … educated by Russian monks … His most recent book … runner-up in the Watney-Mann Bookend of Longlists”). He was — and still is — a team captain on BBC Radio 4’s lighthearted quiz The Write Stuff, proclaimed as the station’s “game of literary correctness”. Each weekly programme features an author of the week, in whose style panelists are asked to write a parody on a given theme; I’ve caught the odd broadcast over the years but to my chagrin have never been a regular listener. Was this collection of broadcast pistaches all that it was cracked up to be?
Book·ish, my local bookshop, has been highlighting a Word of the Week for the last few weeks, and among those featured has been
— which ironically (or probably deliberately) means “the fear of long words”. The online Urban Dictionary tells us that “sesquippedalio” relates to long words while “phobia” is an irrational fear. As for “hippopoto” and “monstro” (which are derived from hippopotamus and monster) they’re both included to exaggerate the length of the word. If such elongations are not your thing then perhaps the synonym sesquippedaliophobia (which means exactly the same thing) will easily substitute.
Another word featured is one I suggested: abibliophobia, or the fear of having no books to read. I also have high hopes of them including one of my recent neologisms, selidodeiktology, which you may remember is the study of bookmarks.
In the meantime a recent-ish meme has found its way onto their noticeboard. This is vellichor, as defined by — and possibly invented by — the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as
the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.
The pedant in me assumes that what is meant by a “used bookstore” is actually a shop containing many used (that is, secondhand) books, though the Dictionary definition could equally mean a bookstore that is well frequented. Perhaps both are implied. But no matter; more interesting to my mind is, whence this concoction?
WorldWideWords.org suggests that it is a compound of ichor and vellum. “The former is the stuff that was said to flow in the veins of the Greek gods in place of blood,” while the latter refers of course to parchment made from calfskin, such as was used in medieval manuscripts. “For lovers of books, there is nothing more distinctive and melancholy than the sight and smell of old books, redolent of dust and decayed hopes.” They add that the term deserves to be more widely known — so here I am trying to spread the word, though I’ve no idea in what context I’m next likely to use it.
Anyway, all this is a preamble to my lauding of Book·ish which — wouldn’t you know — is hosting the second Crickhowell Literary Festival, or CrickLitFest for short. This year sixty-four events are being staged over nine days, from October 1st to October 9th, featuring talks, literary dinners, workshops, children’s events, film showings and other delights. As festival directors Emma Corfield-Waters and Anne Rowe write, a recent Saturday edition of The Times made reference to Crickhowell’s ‘renowned Literary Festival’ which had, at that point, had only one outing, its inaugural appearance! CrickLit aims again to focus — though not exclusively — on Welsh connections such as authors (like its new President, Owen Sheers) and topics (history, culture and, of course, rugby), but anniversaries such as the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme will all also be commemorated.
Clearly this is intended as not just a nine day wonder to be forgotten once it is over but a celebration of books and writers that will resonate until at least the third festival in 2017. May that strange wistfulness that envelops well-used bookstores continue well into the future!
In a previous post I mentioned that in Night Birds on Nantucket our young heroine Dido Twite would go a-voyaging from her native London all around the world. In this, the third instalment of the Wolves Chronicles, she manages to cross the equator four times — though two of those occasions were while in a coma. In this post I intend to look at the places visited by Dido, while further posts will focus on people, themes and Dido’s use of language.
You may recall I’ve been trying to come up with an acceptable term for the study or collecting of bookmarks. I’ve already suggested aestelology and philaestely, and the consensus from my poll is that the former is the favourite. I invited alternatives, and one suggestion was libellumprohibere, from two Latin words meaning ‘book’ and ‘to stop, keep or preserve’.
But I neglected to look further afield, having restricted my search to just one rare Anglo-Saxon word for an object pointing to words, an æstel; my oft-vaunted Europhile credentials were, for a start, sadly not in evidence. So let me remedy that now with some further thoughts.
Joan Aiken Night Birds in Nantucket Puffin 1969 (1966)
Writing a successful novel is sometimes a little like inventing a recipe for a special dish. Take a dash of Jules Verne, add essence of Charles Dickens, several pinches of Herman Melville and season with adventure. Would that it was as simple as that. What you need is the main ingredient, the protein in the dish, and in Night Birds in Nantucket that is provided by the indomitable figure of Dido Twite.
When we last saw Dido she’d been lost at sea somewhere off the northeast coast of England, presumed dead. That was December, 1833. It is now ten months later, and the poor lass has lain in a coma after having been picked up by the whaler Sarah Casket. Like an amalgamation of Snow White and Moby Dick‘s Ishmael she is found in a wooden straw-filled coffin-like box on the other side of the world, north of East Cape on the Russian side of the Bering Straits (the East Cape — Cape Dezhnev since 1898 — was then popular with whalers). She has been looked after by young Nate Pardon all the while, and when she finally awakens it is to find it could be months before she is in a position to head back to England. And while she waits she finds that those on board the Sarah Casket are a very strange bunch indeed.