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A Joyful Poem - Autumn Anderson Reviews "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows"

"Sadness / ˈsadnəs / noun: fullness or the feeling of being full." Perhaps you might believe me (or think me less crazy) if I tell you this was the original meaning of sadness, and that the word shares the same Latin root as sated and satisfaction. John Koenig recaptures this original meaning in his work, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Yes, the same guy who created the blog of the same name and delivered the TED Talk, “Beautiful new words to describe obscure emotions.” He finally compiled his wisdom into a holdable, flippable, pick-up-and-put-down-a-thousand-times because-you-need-a moment-to-think-but-can’t-stop-reading book!

John Koenig invites us to be full of emotions, to experience a joyful surge while remembering that life is an enigmatic flash that offers more questions than answers. Lest you think the title of his work is deceptive, let me assure you that it is a literal dictionary of words he created or redefined to capture the oblique and nuanced feelings no society had ever named before. I bet you’re asking yourself now, Why would I waste time reading a dictionary? The answer is simple: Koenig’s work is also a poem, about you. It is about life and everything that cannot be ignored but simply buried beneath our business.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has six chapters that organize the definitions by the following themes: the external world, the internal world, the people you know, the strangers around you, the passage of time, and the quest for meaning. Each chapter contains short essays and pictures in addition to brief definitions that lend extra food for thought. Koenig’s work is designed to be reader-friendly, the text is big enough to read without straining your eyes and the definitions given enough room for them (and you) to breathe. You won’t feel bombarded or crowded with philosophical jargon—the definitions are digestible and contain relatable imagery that places you in the moment.

This is philosophy for the philosopher without a guild—for the person who wants to better understand the human condition in concrete as well as abstract terms. It is for the person who believes languages can be pulled apart and reassembled to better describe our experiences of the world. Ever think about how the person in front of you is the hero of their own story, the focal point of a narrative you will never get to see? The word for this realization is sonder. What about the peaceful feeling that sometimes steals over you when you are simply hovering on the edges of a social gathering? You aren’t crazy to find comfort in seeing your friends happy even if you aren’t standing next to them, or to feel included when you aren’t participating in their conversation. You aren’t alone in this strange feeling; it is called middling.

Reading this, hopefully you aren’t feeling star-stuck, drained by the fact that nothing is a surprise anymore because of the countless reviews and opinions impressed upon us. I will end my review in a few more words and no more spoilers to preserve the magic of Koenig’s art. Read The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as an act of self-love. Let your emotional well spill over and let each of those drops be named. Learn new words that will wrangle your feelings and perceptions into a state of ordered chaos. The bites of philosophy in this book are worth more than that therapy session you aren’t going to pay for; they will make you feel intrinsically seen and safe, validated, like a blanket is being wrapped around your psyche.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

By John Koenig

Simon & Schuster

Autumn Anderson is an English major with business and psychology minors from Villanova University. She is an avid reader of fantasy, science fiction, romance, and gothic stories, but frequently loves to dip into other genres. Besides reading, in her free time she paints and writes fiction novels and novellas.


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