Moments of clarity are rare and fleeting; how can we become comfortable outside of them, in the more general condition of uncertainty within which we make our lives? Written by English professor Emily Ogden while her children were small, On Not Knowing forays into this rich, ambivalent space. Each of her sharply observed essays invites the reader to think with her about questions she can’t set aside: not knowing how to give birth, to listen, to hold it together, to love.
Unapologetically capacious in her range of reference and idiosyncratic in the canon she draws on, Ogden moves nimbly among the registers of experience, from the operation of a breast pump to the art of herding cattle; from one-night stands to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe; from kayaking near a whale to a psychoanalytic meditation on drowning. Committed to the accumulation of knowledge, Ogden nonetheless finds that knowingness for her can be a way of getting stuck, a way of not really living. Rather than the defensiveness of willful ignorance, On Not Knowing celebrates the defenselessness of not knowing yet—possibly of not knowing ever. Ultimately, this book shows how resisting the temptation of knowingness and embracing the position of not knowing becomes a form of love.
“Ranging among subjects as various as parenthood and desire, psychoanalysis and poetry, the essays in On Not Knowing move by surprise, often veering in directions they hadn’t let you see they were going. The only certainty in reading them is that every arrival is worth it. Ogden has a knack for developing single words and small inklings into full-blown ideas and philosophies. Her anecdotes are as unexpected, her sentences as exquisite, and her conclusions as moving as Emerson’s. Surely this book secures Odgen’s place as one of our finest writers: thinking with her is exhilarating.”—Erica McAlpine, author of The Poet’s Mistake
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On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays by Emily Ogden is an intriguing and engaging collection of essays. These essays are less about making a point than about generating thought. Not to say that points aren't made, they are, but what I took away from most of the essays had less to do with the details of her work and more to do the ideas they stirred within me. This may not make much sense but I seemed to think of many of them as thought experiments. By that I mean I would use something in the essay, maybe an incident (or collection of incidents) or maybe a concept, then following very roughly the path she starts down I would pose my own thought experiments and wander that path for a while. Just to be clear (well, maybe not clear but as close as I come) I still travelled her path with her, the essays engaged me as essays, it is just that they also became starting points for my own thinking. This is a fairly short book with seventeen essays, so it could be a quick read. I would suggest, however, that you read one at a time and give each some thought. Maybe just a few minutes, maybe let it percolate for a day. I read one a day and for most of the essays it stayed in the back of my mind all day, sometimes giving events of that day a new perspective. Like any collection, some will speak more powerfully to you than others, but if you give each some thought I think even those you find less appealing will still be rewarding. I would recommend this the readers who enjoy essays, especially essays that speak to the intersection of the concrete with the abstract. Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.