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Not Knowing Everything, And Not Knowing What We Don’t Know

A photograph of the His Dark Materials trilogy

Going back to the Hunger Games example, if you didn’t know that “Panem” came from the Latin phrase “Panem et Circenses” which means “Bread and Circuses,” would you look it up? (Marciniak, 2018)

This fact was included in a very thoughtful article about cultural literacy. We can’t know everything and we don’t know what we don’t know. This is possibly my biggest fear when reading, and particularly when reading knowing I’ll be reviewing the book, which is about 90% of the time.

The thought that we can’t know everything matches well with my previous post on reading the reference material first. (On that note I should say I chose to start The Female Quixote without looking at the Cervantes. So far, so good – knowing the basics of the earlier text, at 10% read, is all that’s needed.) Unless you have an inordinately large amount of time, and even if you do, knowing everything that is included or referred to by a book is an impossible undertaking. You’d have to find out what you needed to know. You’d need to figure this out for a potential few or several hundred pages worth of text. And you’d need to do this for the referenced books too. I’m starting to get a dizzy as I did as a child when someone told me that heaven is forever and ever (and ever and ever…)

So, we don’t know what we don’t know – my biggest literary fear has got me on occasion; it happens less the older I get and thus the more I realise it’s good to be cautious. When it comes to not getting something in contemporary literary fiction, for example (I think contemporary literary fiction is the least likely place for it) it’s not too bad – you can generally get away with saying ‘I didn’t get this book’, even if you don’t tell others. But for a lot of books it’s very difficult to get around and it can make you feel silly for not knowing. Looking silly isn’t so bad, but making a mistake in, say, a review, can be awful, or at least feel so. At least in the example mentioned in the article, it’s not such a problem. Knowing about Panem might give you a chuckle, a hint of the author’s thoughts very early on, but otherwise it won’t effect your reading too much.

Consider Shakespeare for a moment. When he wrote, he used Greek allusions as if they were pop culture references. And half of the actual pop culture references we still don’t get in Shakespeare’s plays unless we’re scholars of the time period. These are things that go over our heads. They are also things that don’t negate from our reading pleasure and understanding today. (ibid.)

Some books, and other media, if we consider Shakespeare, are written for certain audiences – you can’t expect to understand a book that is on a subject you don’t know about unless it’s a textbook and a beginner’s one at that. This, for me, is where this subject blends into the one about including pop culture in books – the way books will be outdated soon if an author uses things like social media, for example; a person in the future might know or be able to find out what it is but that distinct recognition, relation to it, won’t be there. The reader will, by no fault of their own, lack a particular sort of empathy that might impede their reading of the book. (This is why I’ve not read many books that rely on digital media to tell their story.)

It is in many ways a scary subject – far from the be all, end all, but in context it can make you think twice, and once you’ve discovered one missing link, you’ll spend the rest of the book wondering what else you’re missing.

Do you have this fear? How do you deal with it?

Online References

Marciniak, Catherine (2018), Cultural Literary: Knowing What We Don’t Know, Book Riot, accessed 16th April 2018.



April 17, 2018, 8:12 pm

I normally read at face value and if I happen to glean deeper meaning along the way, then more power to me. I felt the same way when studying poetry in school. That said… when reading historical fiction (of which I read a lot), I’m constantly looking up facts so that I can better understand the story being told. It really irritates me when an author strays too much.

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