“The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” by John Koenig is a beautiful little book that will leave a melancholy taste lingering on your tongue. It is a book that, by virtue of its definitions, defies its own definition. It will make you pay just a bit more attention to the world and people around you. It doesn’t shy away from deep emotions; it confronts them head-on, which makes for a tricky book. It can feel so big that it is overwhelming. Koenig manages to strike a good balance between heavy emotional deep-dives and compelling frivolity.
Like a collection of poetry — perhaps its closest relative in genre — Koenig’s “Dictionary” is best read not all at once, but in digestible chunks that give you time and space to let his definitions and prose sink into your experiences.
It’s almost like a guidebook or self-help book for your complicated, internal landscape. Instead of life advice, though, Koenig gives linguistic shape to feelings or experiences that the reader might want to examine further or replicate. It is divided not into alphabetical order like a normal dictionary, but by themes that include “Between Living and Dreaming” and “Montage of Attractions.” It incorporates photos and collages that give the “Dictionary” a refreshing visual element and add to the dreamlike quality evoked by the words themselves.
These are not just random words, though, pulled out of thin air and whipped into existence. They are taken from words that already exist and are refashioned, which grounds them in a linguistic reality while providing a framework through which Koenig can be creative.
Take, for example, the word indosentia, which appears in the second section of the book, “The Interior Wilderness.” Koenig defines indosentia as “the fear that your emotions might feel profound but are purely biological”; but beyond putting a name to an emotion, he also grounds that name in preexisting language with his creative descriptions.
The word itself is an “acronym of the supposed ‘happy chemicals’ Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins + in absentia, something done in your absence.” These clever manipulations of language to give form to a new word not only outfitted well within the framework of how words in our modern lexicon are added (think “selfie” for “self-taken photo”) but also add to the meaning of the word itself.
As a feat of metalinguistics, or language about language, Koenig’s “Dictionary” excels — and at the same time, makes a paradoxical argument about language and its abilities to describe itself. Koenig uses words that already exist to describe other words that don’t yet exist, which is kind of the whole practice of writing: to capture something in words that don’t yet have a name. The best poetry lends language to a feeling or experience not yet captured. It’s why good poetry (and, by extension, this book) is so satisfying — it scratches the linguistic itch that occurs when we can’t find the exact words to describe our reality.
At the same time that Koenig argues that our language can’t describe the emotions he eloquently outlines, he uses that very language to bring the emotions of those words to life. He 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 extensive and interesting (think words like splanchnic and ganglia). Reading this book teaches newly-created words and makes use of the rich world of existing language.
In some ways, the book speaks for itself. It can perhaps be described best by a selection of its own definitions that cross emotional boundaries and sneak in perfect metaphors. Some are funny, like hanker sore, which means “finding a person so attractive it actually kinda pisses you off.”
Some are beautifully haunting, like fitching, which is “compulsively turning away from works of art you find frustratingly, nauseatingly good — wanting to shut off a film and leave the theater or devour a book only in maddening little chunks — because it resonates at precisely the right frequency to rattle you to your core, which makes it mildly uncomfortable to be yourself.”
Other words like ameneurosis seem to be created for those who may have experienced Ann Arbor at 3 or 4 a.m., “the half-forlorn, half-escapist ache of a train whistle howling in the distance at night.”
Whatever the half-baked, unfinished, yet-to-be-articulated emotion tumbling around in your brain, this book will find a way to name it. Koenig has a cunning ability to parse out emotions in a very specific way and pin them down into actual articulation, both in the word he creates itself and its poetic definition and etymology.
There is joy to be found in every nook and cranny of this book. It encourages you to wonder about and wander through the world, knowing that others feel the same jumble of turbulent emotions, making you feel less alone. This is a book that will settle deep in your gut and leave you with an ache that makes you feel bottomless.
It makes you look a little closer at strangers on the street and think more about the random and inconsequential actions and interactions you have every day. It thrives on specificity and satisfies through universality.
It will leave you, perhaps, with suerza: “a feeling of quiet amazement that you exist at all.”
“Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is set to be published on November 17, 2021, and can be preordered here.
Daily Arts Writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.