Last payday I spent around an hour trawling the bookshops of Falmouth, picking up a few books I’d had my eye on, buying several others that caught my eye.
I spent too much money, because a reader in a bookshop is like a hungry person in a supermarket, temptation will always outweigh willpower, and you will never just stick to a hopping list. Titbits like Penguin’s Great Ideas series or a shelf of secondhand paperbacks are the four-pack of cookies and the deli-counter of the literary world.
Among the unplanned acquisitions was a small book, barely a pamphlet, about 6″ by 3″, 20 odd pages, in flimsy card covers. It cost 50p, and was one of the best impulse purchases ever.
This little book of wonders was The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth, a note-perfect treatise on the wonders of unexpected bookshop finds. Not knowing I had wanted it, I know so badly want to buy every reading acquaintance I have a copy. Anyone who knows the joys of footling around under a fusty staircase in a mildewed room stacked high with red leatherbound volumes, or literally judging a book by it’s cover and buying because of gut instinct, wll identify so much with this book.
Written for Independent Booksellers Week last year, this twenty minute treasure takes as its premise the idea that Donald Rumsfeld’s much ridiculed speech on “the known unknown” as opposed to the “unknown unknown” was not really about, in Forsyth’s words, “Mesopotamian weaponry”, but about the pleasures of physical bookshops, and finding the books you never knew you wanted.
Forsyth takes an apparently humorous (but obviously, really, deadly serious) look at the wonderful rarities that no reader ever sets out to read, but which appear serendipitously in ones life.
Aided by footnotes, he discusses chance encounters with unlooked-for books in everyday life (just remember what strange tomes you yourself may have read in rainy seaside B&Bs), as well as the machinations of chance that occur in all good, physical bookshops, and the necessity of visiting them.
But more than that, he talks of the importance of not just having your desires sated – the equivalent of filling your entire shopping list while at the shops – but finding what you never desired but eventually appreciate even more. And he extends that to more than just books: to romance, the fact that algorythms may find you exactly who you asked for, but may never find you the love you never knew you wanted.
He also extends it to new tastes and experiences, not being tramelled in by more of what you like, but trying something different just for the sake of difference, acquiring a new tastes (and how many of the most highly regarded tastes are ‘acquired’ ones?), trying the funny looking sausage at the deli counter, if you will.
To Mark Forsyth, the bookshop and the role of contingency, the importance of reading books you never knew existed, is a microcosm for the human world and a philosophy to follow within that world. Rumsfeld is his prophet. And I am his newest disciple.
Eager to preach the word of this newly discovered bibliosophy, I returned this afternoon to the Falmouth Bookseller, intending to buy any remaining copies and send them to as many friends as I could possibly manage.
But sadly, the sale box in the corner which fate had led me to was no longer there. All I can do, my brothers and sisters, is urge you to hunt around in any and every bookshop you come across, until you see, peeking from under a battered copy of So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, a foxed, slim, white volume with a green art-deco covering, and Rumsfeld’s epoch-defining words on the cover.
(Or you could get the Kindle version here, but that would be to miss the point, I feel.)
Postscript: I do realis the irony in writing such a long review of such a short book. TLDR version: read this book, it’s gold.