The Unknown Unknown is a tiny little treasure I came across in a small bookshop in St Andrews. It is a very short essay written by bestselling author Mark Forsyth , only some twenty pages long, but indeed a wonderful defence of literature and the traditional bookshop.

In our digitised society in our world of e-books and kindles the traditional bookshop is having a hard time. There seems to be no need to visit a store in order to get a book when we can simply google it, order it online, purchase it as an e-book or download it directly to our e-reader. Kindle unlimited is the new ‘Netflix for books’ and isn’t it much more comfortable then spending time in a bookshop?

So why do we still need bookshops? What can they give us that Amazon and co. cannot? These are the questions that Forsyth explores in his very witty and ironic essay.

During a DoD News Briefing in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld made the following remark on the case of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:

There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.(The Unknown Unknown, p. 1)

Mark Forsyth daringly takes this sentence completely out of its context and uses it to describe a good bookshop. According to him, the best books are those we do not know about: the books we come across by coincidence – in a small bookshop, at a friend’s house, on a park bench, that we would never have looked for on purpose. Books we encounter randomly which possess some feature that captures our attention – books we end up loving. They may not belong to the genre we usually read or be the kind of books that we would look for at all, but nevertheless, we end up enjoying and rereading them again and again. These are the little treasures we never find online, that we cannot Google on the internet as we do not know that we are looking for them; they bear titles we never heard of and are written by authors we do not know.

But the others. Where are they? Who are they? I’ve absolutely no idea. They’re probably having a party next door. The best sort of party filled with beautiful wines and delicious women. But I am not invited. Not that I can blame them. We’ve never met. And I can’t find them, because I don’t know their names. They are the unknown unknown, and I can’t even pine after them, such is my double ignorance.

And thus and therefore the bookshop; for, though there is a popular myth that Mr Rumsfeld was discussing Mesopotamian weaponry, he was, of course, discussing methods of buying books. We are all a little misunderstood at times.  (p. 3)

Indeed, Forsyth argues that the internet can only help us get what we already know we want. But what about that which we don’t know we want? Aren’t the best things often chance encounters? And would we not lose something crucial if we were deprived of these random discoveries, be they beautiful pieces of literature, funny prose, or exciting poems?

This does not only apply to books but alsoour everyday lives. Forsyth wittingly uses the example of Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet in order to make his point: Would Elizabeth Bennet ever have met Mr Darcy or would Romeo and Juliet ever fallen if love if they had looked for a partner online?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must have already posted his details and requirements online and be working through the responses. Reader, I Googled him. THE END. (p. 18)

Of course Forsyth is being very ironic here, but his case is clear. The unknown unknowns make our lives worth living, they are the little extras that sweeten our days. In terms of literature, the unknown unknowns are the books that stick with us: the little treasures of literature that we would never encounter online. And this is exactly the reason why we need bookshops – little, selective bookshops – where you “should go in blindfolded, reach out your hand at random and find something wonderful.”(p. 15)

Especially in a society where almost everything can be researched, the unknown unknowns are of the utmost importance and indeed they are still there: “Juliet is still waiting for you at the masked ball, if only you’ll go along. […] And the book is still waiting for you, the perfect book, the one that will answer every question you didn’t know to ask.” (p. 20)

For me, Forsyth’s essay is such a book; I would never have looked for it on purpose. It was just lying there, on display in a small, little bookshop. I am happy to have discovered this beautiful read – a wonderful, ironic, and witty ode to literature and the unknowns in life.


Charlotte Wirth


Forsyth Mark, The Unknown Unknown. Bookshops and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted. London: Icon Books. 2014. ISBN: 978-184831-784-0.