On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays (Paperback)
A beautifully written suite of personal essays on the value of not knowing.
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.
About the Author
Emily Ogden is associate professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism, also published by the University of Chicago Press. You can find her on Twitter at @ENOgden. She lives in Charlottesville, VA.
"Readers will put On Not Knowing down (for the moment) with a reinvigorated desire to live. Readers will understand (or at least have glimpsed) that to live fully is to always be open to being surprised, and they will see how succumbing to the temptation of knowingness is to foreclose risk and therefore kill that which makes life worth living. Or maybe they won’t. Perhaps they will disagree with these conclusions; maybe their principle “takeaways” will be fragments of Ogden’s wonderfully lyrical prose. I hope other readers will surprise me. But I also hope that they will see (as Ogden so clearly does) that life and literature are coextensive—and that the joyous and impossibly demanding task of each is love."
— Cleveland Review of Books
“The difficult lesson of Ogden’s book, in whose service she dedicates her precise and poetic style, is to relinquish not just a particular mode of knowledge, but our faith in knowledge itself as the basis for a good, meaningful life.”
— The Chronicle of Higher Education
“Right now, our political and aesthetic discourse seems less a genuine conversation than a competition of mutually exclusive certainties. How wonderful it is to read Ogden, a writer who says that ‘the question mark’s business with me will never be finished’ and means it.”
— The Atlantic
“Ogden’s writing is personal and magically dexterous, giving the same attention to not knowing how to give birth as not knowing how to hold it together for one’s children. On Not Knowing is a meditative account of trying to live a life comfortable with the uncertainty we breathe in.”
— Electric Lit
"On Not Knowing is providing me with rich material on why emotional grey areas are worth looking towards and embracing in their own right. . . Ogden illustrates, elegantly and authoritatively, why we should be looking at those 'blurriest, fleetest experiences', and sticking with them."
— Emily Bootle, Guardian
“Ogden’s brief, buoyant, informative, and irresistible essays on motherhood, herding, hope, riffing, listening, and one-night stands enter their subjects through style pass-throughs: small, sturdy, and precisely angled. Ogden doesn’t fix thought to a map of itself, she invites it into an ever less-fettered conversation with her own life and the lives and words of others.”
“Ogden’s essays are remarkable for their subtle and ingenious curiosity. Her willingness to be at once candid, lucid, and utterly intriguing—in a language lyrical and exact—makes these essays irresistibly compelling. The vision and revision that is her writing renews the essay as a vital form.”
— Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and author of 'On Wanting to Change'
“On Not Knowing is many things: a brilliant close reading of motherhood; a tonic counter to ‘self-help’ books; an intimate, unsentimental tribute to children; and an extended riff on how we make meaning with language. What is most extraordinary is how Ogden takes a surface moment of the everyday and deftly turns and deepens it until she arrives at a space of luminous complexity.”
— Dana Spiotta, author of 'Wayward: A Novel'
“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 Ogden’s place as one of our finest writers: thinking with her is exhilarating.”
— Erica McAlpine, author of 'The Poet’s Mistake'
“Undefended, visceral, and thrilling—Ogden’s book reimagines not knowing as an achievement rather than simply a predicament. She writes with the courage of something other than conviction, and with a willingness to be surprised by herself. On Not Knowing is a beautiful book, an essaying of experience that is responsive not just to ideas, but to the feelings which inform and depart from them.”
— Matthew Bevis, author of 'Wordsworth’s Fun'
"In stories, identity is adaptable, and uncertainty about who we are becomes a source of new possibility. By placing storytelling at the heart of her essayistic practice, Ogden revitalizes Montaigne's model of personal writing, bringing elements of a memoir to the genre."
— Oxford Review
"Emily Ogden's On Not Knowing is providing me with rich material on why emotional grey areas are worth looking towards and embracing in their own right... Ogden illustrates, elegantly and authoritatively, why we should be looking at those 'blurriest, fleetest experiences,' and sticking with them."
— Guardian UK
“ I savored each one of these short ruminative pieces, not least because they are so brilliantly atopical. . . . So many of these essays dip and soar, between their takeoff and landing, with deceptive ease; but for all their elegance, there’s a tough sinew to the thought that keeps them up in the air.”
— Public Books
"With Ogden’s collection of short essays, my impulse is to say less rather than more, so readers can find them on their own. I will admit, nonetheless, that her use of language kept making me think: I didn’t know words could go together that way, I didn’t know moods and experiences and fears and loves could be explored as Ogden does it. I am not skeptical of how much I love this book."
— Public Books
"There are many things that Emily Ogden, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, knows: Greek mythology, nineteenth-century American literature, psychoanalytic writing, animal husbandry. But in On Not Knowing, a book of seventeen brief and edifying essays, she uses her knowledge to illuminate the 'dimness' in which she spends most of her time: the messy uncertainty of daily life, which she has recently begun to spend with her young twin boys. Her illumination does not dispel this dimness, but instead casts a halo around it, demonstrating the value of circling the uncertain."
— The Times Literary Supplement