The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a project by John Koenig that he has undertaken since 2009. Originally a blog and then a YouTube series, the author’s work culminated into this book, which was published in November of 2021. All of them created by the author, the book is a collection of new words and their definitions, which encapsulate emotions we all feel but have difficulty putting into words.
This review is going to be a little different from normal, as fiction/nonfiction is more typically my wheelhouse. I don’t feel I’m equipped to examine it more deeply as a reference book or a work of linguistics. However, I wanted to write a little something about this book anyway to share some of my feelings about it, so this is going to be a less formal review among my posts.
I still remember watching the YouTube videos for these words and the beautifully expressive and brief essays that would accompany each definition, helping to fully immerse you in the feeling, even if only for a couple of minutes. To use one of the author’s own words, it’s given me a noticeable sense of echthesia, as it really doesn’t feel all that long ago when I first watched them, but at the time I was barely entering my mid twenties. Now, I’m in my early thirties.
This collection was a really affecting reading experience for me, despite the fact I was ostensibly just reading a dictionary. There’s something about trying to capture such specific feelings and sensations, that could perhaps be considered inexpressible in a lot of ways, and committing them to the page. I couldn’t help but allow them to inhabit me whenever I found myself relating, often leaving me quite wistful and introspective. Most of the words within are accompanied by fairly brief definitions, but there are a few that are expanded into short essays too, which are typically about terms that capture something a little grander than the rest.
It being a collection of new words, it’s hard not to admit that you will likely forget many of those you read shortly after you encounter them, by which I specifically mean the literal words themselves. I know that has been the case for me, anyway. But what has stayed with me is the feeling they evoke. You may not remember a new word you’ve read one time, but that it was a word for the feeling of shame you get after revealing a little too much of yourself to someone is something far more lasting, perhaps inspiring you to dig through the book again one day in the future to help you pry the word from the tip of your tongue.
To close this out, I wanted to share five words that really struck a chord with me. I’ve already been sharing one each week in my WWW posts, so I thought it would be nice to collect some here too.
n. the paradoxical urge to avoid doing something you’ve been looking forward to—opening a decisive letter, meeting up with a friend who’s finally back in town, reading a new book from your favorite author—perpetually waiting around for the right state of mind, stretching out the bliss of anticipation as long as you can.
Latin pro-, forward + reluctans, resisting. Pronounced “proh-lukh-tuhns.”
n. the frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should, which prompts you to try plugging in various thought combinations to trigger anything more intense than roaring static, as if your heart had been inadvertently demagnetized by a surge of expectations.
From wend, to wander unpredictably along a predetermined path. Compare the bends, which occurs when a diver ascends too quickly and gas bubbles begin to form in their tissues, a condition that can be debilitating or fatal.
adj. exhausted by endless reviews and secondhand impressions; itching to stumble blindly into the world and make some mistakes, to wander around opening doors to restaurants and performances and movies you’ve never heard of, without the slightest idea of what to expect.
From star, a standard of rating unit of reviews + stuck.
n. a tiny jolt of awareness that someday you will die, which leaves you lying awake in bed whispering silently to yourself, Oh, right, this is it; an unsettling reminder that your life is not just a game you’re playing or a story you’ll be telling later, but your one and only glimpse of what the universe has to offer, like a kid waking up in the back seat of the family car at night, having just pulled into a bright neon gas station, looking around for a moment or two, before settling back in for a long road trip, sleeping for miles and miles off into the dark.
Latin morituri, “we who are about to die.” Pronounced “moh-rich-uh-riz-uhm.”
n. an ill-fated attempt to reenact a beloved memory years later, returning to a place that once felt like home, only to find it now feels uncannily off, like walking through a wax museum of your own childhood.
Dutch kier, fissure or narrow opening, as in the midpoint of an hourglass. Pronounced “keer.”
I’ve really enjoyed sharing these words in my posts over the past several weeks as I’ve made my way through this book, and I hope you’ve enjoyed that too. I highly encourage checking this book out if any of these resonate with you; there are plenty more to discover.