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.
It’s soon clear that what he’s describing is serendipity, resulting in pleasant things happening by chance without one’s planning for them. Using internet search engines to find books may seem, he suggests, like looking for unknown unknowns, but because of the way they work and the information they’ve already built up on your preferences, they tend to give you known unknowns — genres and subject matter and authors you’ve already shown an interest in. How often do you come up with (to use the author’s examples) tomes on old lavatories in the Cotswolds, or short story anthologies written by a bus company’s employees, or a books of 19th-century French daguerreotypes of ladies spanking each other’s bottoms? (Well, maybe not the last.)
Forsyth goes on to discuss The Good Bookshop, which he defines as
a room (or two) where the unknown unknowns of the world are laid out on tables and stacked in shelves […] where you can find what you never knew you wanted, where your desires can be perpetually expanded.
This is familiar to me from my local bookshop, an L-shaped room (clearly once two rooms) where, despite shelves labelled by categories such as poetry, fantasy or local books, most books are not placed in alphabetical order of authors but serendipitously, forcing the browser to pick up products according to title, attractive spine, thickness or the fact they are conveniently to hand. This picking up of volumes as circumstances dictate leads to a section he calls Bibliomancy; this is when you open a page at random and what word or phrase or sentence catches your eye can reek of significance, which may then influence you in your ultimate purchasing of said item.
Further sections on The Ghost in the Bookshop, The Romantic Bookshop, Theology and Geography reinforce Forsyth’s main thesis. He concludes with Rumsfeld’s judgement on the concept of unknown unknowns: “It sounds like a riddle. It isn’t a riddle. It is a very serious, important matter.”
I’m not surprised that many political commentators were flummoxed by Rumsfeld’s speech: it’s not often that they are called on to consider situations in an abstract, philosophical manner. Perhaps they needed to have read more books; maybe even those they’d somehow acquired by happenstance.
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Ever had one of those words — perhaps like serendipity — on the tip of your tongue, but could never quite spit it out? That’s lethologica, defined by psychologists as the temporary inability to remember a word or name (or even an intended action), combined with the feeling that the arrival of the longed-for word is imminent. Interestingly, Roald Dahl (the centenary of whose birth is celebrated this month) was intrigued by the way his wife Patricia Neal, following a bleed from a brain aneurysm 1965, made up substitute nonsense words for terms she couldn’t remember; her unusual speech patterns — a temporary state of affairs, luckily — supposedly helped inspire the way the BFG was made to speak in one of Dahl’s most popular children’s books.
This word (for you an unknown unknown, perhaps) is the current Word of the Week displayed by the above-mentioned local bookshop and, would you believe it, I had a lethological moment not long after when I couldn’t quite remember it, quand j’avais eu le mot au bout de la langue — see, I could recall the French phrase for it, but not the exact term. Try it and see. Go to the shops, have a chat with someone, finish the chores. Return and think. Chances are the word will have somehow eluded you …