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On Not Knowing

How to Love and Other Essays

A beautifully written suite of personal essays on the value of not knowing.

Moments of clarity are rare and fleeting; how can we become comfortable outside of them, in the more general condition of uncertainty within which we make our lives? Written by English professor Emily Ogden while her children were small, On Not Knowing forays into this rich, ambivalent space. Each of her sharply observed essays invites the reader to think with her about questions she can’t set aside: not knowing how to give birth, to listen, to hold it together, to love.
Unapologetically capacious in her range of reference and idiosyncratic in the canon she draws on, Ogden moves nimbly among the registers of experience, from the operation of a breast pump to the art of herding cattle; from one-night stands to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe; from kayaking near a whale to a psychoanalytic meditation on drowning. Committed to the accumulation of knowledge, Ogden nonetheless finds that knowingness for her can be a way of getting stuck, a way of not really living. Rather than the defensiveness of willful ignorance, On Not Knowing celebrates the defenselessness of not knowing yet—possibly of not knowing ever. Ultimately, this book shows how resisting the temptation of knowingness and embracing the position of not knowing becomes a form of love.

136 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2022

Biography and Letters

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


"Readers will put On Not Knowing down (for the moment) with a reinvigorated desire to live. Readers will understand (or at least have glimpsed) that to live fully is to always be open to being surprised, and they will see how succumbing to the temptation of knowingness is to foreclose risk and therefore kill that which makes life worth living. Or maybe they won’t. Perhaps they will disagree with these conclusions; maybe their principle “takeaways” will be fragments of Ogden’s wonderfully lyrical prose. I hope other readers will surprise me. But I also hope that they will see (as Ogden so clearly does) that life and literature are coextensive—and that the joyous and impossibly demanding task of each is love."

Cleveland Review of Books

“The difficult lesson of Ogden’s book, in whose service she dedicates her precise and poetic style, is to relinquish not just a particular mode of knowledge, but our faith in knowledge itself as the basis for a good, meaningful life.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education

“Right now, our political and aesthetic discourse seems less a genuine conversation than a competition of mutually exclusive certainties. How wonderful it is to read Ogden, a writer who says that ‘the question mark’s business with me will never be finished’ and means it.”

The Atlantic

“Ogden’s writing is personal and magically dexterous, giving the same attention to not knowing how to give birth as not knowing how to hold it together for one’s children. On Not Knowing is a meditative account of trying to live a life comfortable with the uncertainty we breathe in.”

Electric Lit

"On Not Knowing is providing me with rich material on why emotional grey areas are worth looking towards and embracing in their own right. . . Ogden illustrates, elegantly and authoritatively, why we should be looking at those 'blurriest, fleetest experiences', and sticking with them."

Emily Bootle, Guardian

“Ogden’s brief, buoyant, informative, and irresistible essays on motherhood, herding, hope, riffing, listening, and one-night stands enter their subjects through style pass-throughs: small, sturdy, and precisely angled. Ogden doesn’t fix thought to a map of itself, she invites it into an ever less-fettered conversation with her own life and the lives and words of others.”


“Ogden’s essays are remarkable for their subtle and ingenious curiosity. Her willingness to be at once candid, lucid, and utterly intriguing—in a language lyrical and exact—makes these essays irresistibly compelling. The vision and revision that is her writing renews the essay as a vital form.”

Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and author of 'On Wanting to Change'

On Not Knowing is many things: a brilliant close reading of motherhood; a tonic counter to ‘self-help’ books; an intimate, unsentimental tribute to children; and an extended riff on how we make meaning with language. What is most extraordinary is how Ogden takes a surface moment of the everyday and deftly turns and deepens it until she arrives at a space of luminous complexity.”

Dana Spiotta, author of 'Wayward: A Novel'

“Ranging among subjects as various as parenthood and desire, psychoanalysis and poetry, the essays in On Not Knowing move by surprise, often veering in directions they hadn’t let you see they were going. The only certainty in reading them is that every arrival is worth it. Ogden has a knack for developing single words and small inklings into full-blown ideas and philosophies. Her anecdotes are as unexpected, her sentences as exquisite, and her conclusions as moving as Emerson’s. Surely this book secures Ogden’s place as one of our finest writers: thinking with her is exhilarating.”

Erica McAlpine, author of 'The Poet’s Mistake'

“Undefended, visceral, and thrilling—Ogden’s book reimagines not knowing as an achievement rather than simply a predicament. She writes with the courage of something other than conviction, and with a willingness to be surprised by herself. On Not Knowing is a beautiful book, an essaying of experience that is responsive not just to ideas, but to the feelings which inform and depart from them.”

Matthew Bevis, author of 'Wordsworth’s Fun'

"In stories, identity is adaptable, and uncertainty about who we are becomes a source of new possibility. By placing storytelling at the heart of her essayistic practice, Ogden revitalizes Montaigne's model of personal writing, bringing elements of a memoir to the genre."

Oxford Review

"Emily Ogden's On Not Knowing is providing me with rich material on why emotional grey areas are worth looking towards and embracing in their own right... Ogden illustrates, elegantly and authoritatively, why we should be looking at those 'blurriest, fleetest experiences,' and sticking with them."

Guardian UK

“ I savored each one of these short ruminative pieces, not least because they are so brilliantly atopical. . . . So many of these essays dip and soar, between their takeoff and landing, with deceptive ease; but for all their elegance, there’s a tough sinew to the thought that keeps them up in the air.”

Public Books

"With Ogden’s collection of short essays, my impulse is to say less rather than more, so readers can find them on their own. I will admit, nonetheless, that her use of language kept making me think: I didn’t know words could go together that way, I didn’t know moods and experiences and fears and loves could be explored as Ogden does it. I am not skeptical of how much I love this book."

Public Books

"There are many things that Emily Ogden, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, knows: Greek mythology, nineteenth-century American literature, psychoanalytic writing, animal husbandry. But in On Not Knowing, a book of seventeen brief and edifying essays, she uses her knowledge to illuminate the 'dimness' in which she spends most of her time: the messy uncertainty of daily life, which she has recently begun to spend with her young twin boys. Her illumination does not dispel this dimness, but instead casts a halo around it, demonstrating the value of circling the uncertain."

The Times Literary Supplement

Table of Contents

How to Catch a Minnow
How to Swim
How to Hold It Together
How to Give Birth
How to Milk
How to Step over a Snake
How to Herd
How to Riff
How to Turn the Corner
How to Have a One-Night Stand
How to Listen
How to Have a Breakthrough
How to Love
How to Elude Your Captors
How to Hope
How to Come Back to Life
How to Stay


The world burns, yet the fire is not bright enough to read a map by. Nor am I mostly reading. I am still sweeping the dirt out of the corners and intercepting my children’s arms halfway through the act of smashing a glass on the stone ground. I am still trying to use fruit before it rots. The light flickers.

Revelation is no common thing. When it comes, it rarely lasts. It is not necessarily present at the end of the world. How to love, what to do, in the dim times? These are the questions of On Not Knowing.

From the Book of Revelation in the Bible, most people remember the apocalyptic prophecy. But the book begins with ordinary failures. A sword-mouthed being dictates John the Revelator’s letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. The angel scolds Pergamum for worshipping false idols. He tells Sardis, “Wake up.” In the letter to Ephesus, he complains: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”

Before the end of the world, even while the world is ending, the Book of Revelation concerns itself with dailiness, as though there were a close relationship between the lightning strike and the dimness into which it subsides. The world has mundanity, duration, bullshit. Many nonsense tasks must be completed; false spirits must be tried and rejected; long periods pass in which nothing illuminating happens. Write to Sardis and tell them it can never add up. Write to Pergamum and tell them, you still have to hold your children, fetch them tissues, and find boxes for their caterpillars.

Leviathan threatens. Mostly I see minnows.
“Looking for the fossilized, for something—persons and places thick and encrusted with final shape,” writes Elizabeth Hardwick; “instead there are many, many minnows, wildly swimming, trembling, vigilant to escape the net.” A person can want a clear view and not get it; a person can believe decisive action is required and yet not know how to begin. “I would up heart, were it not like lead. But my whole clock’s run down; my heart the all-controlling weight, I have no key to lift again.” So says Starbuck, the first mate of the Pequod, in Moby-Dick, overmatched by the tyranny of Ahab. Unfitness to pursue our research in the unfathomable waters; unfitness to act too. To see the encrusted form might be best, but to attend to the minnows as they present themselves is better than to feign a monumental vision and live by it. In this book, I try to resist the temptation to turn away from things as I find them—blurry, quicksilver, unhandsome.

At the edge of a midsummer river, a handful of minnows hangs in the bright brown light. Their silver noses point toward the branch that shelters them from the current. They hover with the busy motionlessness of bees. Minnows call the hand. Without decision, my arm darts out. The fish sense my intention propagating itself toward them. They have lateral line organs that permit them to feel, as a kind of matrix, the motions of others in the water. They are gone so fast it is as if their leaving caused my fingers to touch the river, and not the other way around.

It is troublesome enough to catch a single minnow in a stream; now imagine a whole school of herring, radiating silver from every point. Massive schools may improve the odds of survival for any individual fish, although it is not clear why. It might be the case that marine predators struggle to focalize upon a single fish among many. It is not that they are bad at focusing, but that they are too good at it. Their targeting capacity is too easily triggered; the impulse to fix every fish in their sights prevents them from sighting a single one completely. They start to fix their eyes on one. Before they have even begun, they get distracted by another one and try to focus on it instead. The process is never complete.

A human being, also a predator, will find it impossible to keep an eye on one starling in a flock of thousands. Conceptual efforts stumble in the face of the world’s vast calamitous tides. Nonetheless, it is human beings who, in the aggregate, have set those tides on foot. No act, no failure to act, no use or squandering of resources that does not mark me as the author of another’s destruction. Orca-like, I can’t focus; minnow-like, I respond unthinkingly to the fact of others’ turning. In the execution of my acts, I entail action on others in my turn. As difficult as it is for me to think one thought among a proliferation of thoughts, I would appear to be, at the same time, effortlessly prolific in my complicity. My school has destroyed a planet.

Unknowing is on every side of the predicament. Unknowing is there in the terminal flight into frozen innocence with which some of us try to protect ourselves from knowledge of our culpability. Unknowing is there, too, in the uncertainty one may feel when confronted with the problem of how to repair the damage. And unknowing will still be there if one finds a way to live that one can live with. For the few fish captured, many more will escape the net.

If there is a kind of unknowing that could serve now, it is not the defensiveness of willful ignorance but the defenselessness of not knowing yet. Can a person go back to the unpruned adjectives of immediate experience? Before one summed up this moment in history, what, exactly, was it? What, lying under the summary—what, swimming chaotically beneath any pretense of certainty—what, before the predator’s eye confounded itself—what was it, what does it continue to be? When I talk about unknowing, I am not talking about the refusal to know what can be known, or about the simple accident of not having found something out yet, nor even, although this is warmer, about the fact that we will each absorb only a finite amount of knowledge in the course of our finite lives. Instead, I am talking about a capacity to hold the position of not knowing yet—possibly of not knowing ever. I’m talking about living with the dimness that I will mostly inhabit…

I do not think I am unduly skeptical about moments of heightened experience. Like most people, I can point to a handful of them in my life. There was the rocketing of an owl; the surfacing of a whale; eye contact with a bluegill or a poet, across a line; good sex; the wish for sex with one particular person; and forced sex too; and the advent of danger, such as a copperhead on the asphalt path, or my three-year-old child slipping, with the small obscene splash of Breughel’s Icarus, from the dock into the pond, his father following quicker than my sluggish thought to surface him, coughing, sobbing; the child aware despite our studied nonchalance that something he had not known that he possessed had been at stake: his life.

It is true that our lives can be at stake in moments of breakthrough. These moments often change us, sometimes against our will. Other times they change us with our will; perhaps we even will the change too hard. Our problem as we see it is how to get bound securely enough. How, we ask ourselves, can we constrain ourselves so tightly that we will never abandon the love we had at first? How can we wake up, and stay that way?

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