“The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” by John Koenig is a beautiful little book that will leave a melancholy taste on your tongue. It is a book which, by its definitions, defies its own definition. It will make you pay a little more attention to the world and the people around you. He is not afraid of deep emotions; he confronts them head-on, which makes it a delicate book. It may seem so big it’s overwhelming. Koenig manages to strike a good balance between heavy emotional dives and convincing frivolity.
Like a collection of poetry – perhaps its closest relative in the genre – Koenig’s “Dictionary” is best read not all at once, but in digestible chunks that give you time and space to leave its definitions behind. and its prose soak up your experiences.
It’s almost like a guide or self-help book for your complicated internal landscape. Instead of life advice, however, Koenig gives linguistic form to feelings or experiences the reader might want to deepen or replicate. It is not divided alphabetically like a normal dictionary, but by themes which include “Between Living and Dreaming” and “Montage of Attractions”. It incorporates photos and collages which give the âDictionaryâ a refreshing visual element and add to the dreamlike quality evoked by the words themselves.
These aren’t just random words, however, come out of nowhere and created. They are taken from words that already exist and are reshaped, rooting them in a linguistic reality while providing a framework through which Koenig can be creative.
Take, for example, the word indose, which appears in the second section of the book, “The Interior Wilderness”. Koenig defines indose like “the fear that your emotions are deep but purely biological”; but beyond putting a name to an emotion, he also founds this name in a pre-existing language with his creative descriptions.
The word itself is an “acronym for the supposed” happy chemicals “dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins + in absentia, something done in your absence. These clever manipulations of language to shape a new word not only fit well into the framework of how words in our modern lexicon are added (think “selfie” for “photo taken by yourself”) but add also in the sense of the word itself.
As a feat of metalinguistics, or language over language, Koenig’s “Dictionary” excels – and at the same time, makes a paradoxical argument about language and its ability to describe itself. Koenig uses words that already exist to describe other words that don’t yet exist, which is sort of the whole practice of writing: capturing something with words that don’t yet have a name. The best poetry lends language to a feeling or experience that has not yet been captured. That’s why good poetry (and, by extension, this book) is so satisfying – it scrapes the linguistic itch that occurs when we can’t find the exact words to describe our reality.
While Koenig argues that our language cannot describe the emotions he eloquently describes, he uses that same language to bring the emotions in those words to life. It offers the reader the delicious irony of telling us that our words are inaccurate to describe our life, and then uses those words to do just that. This only works because Koenig’s existing vocabulary – his “word bank” with which to define his new words – is large and interesting (think words like splanchnic and ganglia). Reading this book teaches newly created words and uses the rich world of the existing language.
In some ways, the book speaks for itself. He can perhaps be best described by a selection of his own definitions that cross emotional boundaries and squeeze into perfect metaphors. Some are funny, like want to vomit, which means “find someone so attractive that they get on your nerves a little.”
Some are beautifully haunting, like Assembly, which “compulsively shies away from works of art that you find frustrating, of nauseating quality – wanting to turn off a movie and leave the cinema or devour a book only in maddening little bits and pieces – because it resonates at precisely the right frequency to make your heart vibrate, which makes it slightly uncomfortable to be yourself.
Other words like ameneurosis seem to be created for those who may have known Ann Arbor at 3 or 4 in the morning, “the half-hopeless, half-evasive pain of a train whistle howling in the distance at night.”
Whatever half-baked, unfinished, yet-to-articulate emotion spinning in your brain, this book will find a way to name it. Koenig has a crafty ability to analyze emotions in a very specific way and pin them down in real articulation, both in the word he himself creates and in its poetic definition and etymology.
There is joy in every nook and cranny of this book. It encourages you to question yourself and walk the world, knowing that other people experience the same jumble of turbulent emotions, making you feel less alone. It’s a book that will settle deep in your guts and leave you with a pain that will make you feel bottomless.
It makes you take a closer look at strangers on the street and think more about the random, inconsequential actions and interactions you have every day. It is nourished by specificity and satisfied by universality.
Maybe this will leave you with suerza: “a sense of quiet astonishment that you exist at all.”
Daily artistic writer Emilia Ferrante can be contacted at [email protected]