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September 13, 2013

Book Notes - Leah Hager Cohen "I Don't Know"

I Don't Know

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Leah Hager Cohen's I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't) is a concise, well written, and surprisingly entertaining exploration of why we feign knowledge of things we don't know, and how that holds us back.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A noted author’s short but pointed meditation on the difficulty human beings have in admitting their own ignorance. . . . Drawing from a variety of scientific, linguistic, literary and philosophical sources, Cohen examines both the human urge to conceal ignorance and its ramifications. The anecdotes are both illuminating and disturbing, and they are from personal experience as well as from the many informal interviews she conducted with people from different walks of life. . . . Refreshingly wise and open-minded."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Leah Hager Cohen's Book Notes music playlist for her book, I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't):

In the spirit of my new little book, I Don't Know, I feel I should say straight off that I know very little about music. I don't just mean that I'm ignorant about stuff like music theory or music history. I mean I've always been very nerdy and out of the loop. I went through adolescence in the eighties. My friends were discovering cool bands. (I seem to remember lots of passionate debate about The Police while sitting at the cafeteria table in high school, and then later hearing about Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, both of which I thought were the names of lead singers. Oh, and in college, one time I was taking a bus to visit some friends, and when I called them from a pay phone at the station they apologized; they couldn't pick me up because they were going to a concert. "We got tickets for U2," they said. To which I replied in earnest, "Thanks, you guys!") Meanwhile, I was happily listening to Pete Seeger and Sweet Honey in the Rock. And singing little songs to myself.

So I'm tickled to get to make this playlist for Largehearted Boy. Yay. Here goes:

"Circle Around the Sun" – Poi Dog Pondering

These guys started out in Hawaii, and you can hear ukuleles and other interesting sounds in their songs. Their website says they're "Multi Racial, Omni sexual, and unafraid to be themselves." I learned about them back in 1989 from my friend Edna. We shared the basement flat of a building in Prospect Heights. She had the front studio and I had the back studio. Both units had fleas. But this is neither here nor there. In this song they have a line, "Who am I to try to guide my life?" Which seems both funny and wise.

"Ain't No Sunshine" – Bill Withers

This is that song where he repeats the words "I know" something like 26 times in a row, all the while building this great plaintive hopeless swell, because we know, listening to him trying to convince himself he "oughtta leave young thing alone," that he won't be able to act on what he knows. I got my boyfriend a Bill Withers boxed set for his last birthday.

"I Saw a Man" - María Irene Fornés, Al Carmines

A song from the musical Promenade, for which Fornés, a Cuban-American avant-garde playwright, did the book and lyrics, and the Reverend Al Carmines did the music. My parents took me to see this at Judson Church in Greenwich Village when I was about five. I don't remember – and actually never really understood – what it's about, but for some reason I absolutely love it. This particular song has a part that goes:

I know everything.
Half of it I really know.
The rest I make up.
The rest I make up.

"Lessons From What's Poor" – Bonnie Prince Billy

Do you know Bonnie Prince Billy? I hate to be a music proselytizer, and I don't generally like it when people foist their musical passions on me, but of course I just went and re-listened to this song and I kind of want to ask everyone to listen to it now. It's so simple, or I mean humble. It's so simple-humble-mortal-quiet-and-accepting about what we are and just that, nothing more.

"Surabaya Johnny" – Kurt Weill, Berthold Brecht

I'm a sucker for musicals, especially darkish musicals, and I'm also a sucker for Ute Lemper singing anything by Weill and Brecht. I thought about putting here, "Song of the Insufficiency of Human Endeavor," because it's such a great, absurd, Brechtian title for a song, and it seems like maybe it relates more to the subject of my book. But then at the last minute I had to change it to "Surabaya Johnny," from the musical Happy End. It's this pathos-ridden ballad (is it a ballad? I don't know: see there I go using words whose meaning I'm not sure of…sigh) in which the singer is struggling with her love and hatred of the "louse" Johnny. It does such a great job of capturing what it's like to know two contradictory things at once. And I love the line she keeps repeating in a kind of growl: "Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat."

Wonderful World – Sam Cooke

How could I not put this one on the list?

Don't know much about history
Don't know much biology
Don't know much about a science book
Don't know much about the French I took

"Take Me As I Am" – Mary J. Blige

Bless your heart, MJB. You make me feel the possibility of being strong.

Years back, I wrote a book about girls' boxing and women's relationships to aggression and desire. It was called Without Apology, and after I wrote it I kind of thought: Great. Now I've figured this one out and I'm not to go around apologizing for taking up space in the world all the time. Ha. Maybe in a way I Don't Know is an attempt to revisit the goal of coming to a place of being clear and happy with who I am, no apologies necessary.

"Let the Mystery Be" – Iris DeMent

She's got this cheerful, twangy voice, and it's a cheerful, twangy tune, and it's hard to listen to this song and not feel peaceful about not knowing.

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

"On Children" – Sweet Honey in the Rock

My dad and I first saw Sweet Honey in the Rock perform on a street in the East Village after a Labor Day parade back in the early eighties. I had stilted in the parade, and at the end I sat on the roof of a car to untie the straps that held my legs and feet in the stilts. I'd always have terrible blisters and burns after stiltwalking and stiltdancing, but I didn't care – I loved it. We were both tired and sweaty and happy, and we walked down this street they had blocked off for Labor Day, and there was this incredible group of African American women singing a cappella. They just rocked us, they swept us up. They were not widely known at the time, and my dad and I felt like we'd "discovered" them. In this song, they set the words from part of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet to music. It's a great reminder of just how much of what we wish to lay claim to cannot be claimed, only loved.

"Tell the Truth" – Otis Redding

This song is almost like a bookend to "Ain't No Sunshine," with its long string of "I know"s. This song ends with its own long string:

The truth now
Tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em, tell, just tell me the truth now
Just tell me the truth now
Got to tell me no lie
I wanna tell you the truth now
Don't you, don't you tell me no lie, ah
Just tell me the truth now
Don't you, don't you tell me no lie girl, huh
Just tell me the truth now...

The back-and-forth-ness of it, the multi-directionality of it (tell ‘em; tell me; I wanna tell you) speaks to how truthfulness is about relationships with others as much as with ourselves. There's something so powerful about the idea of community resting on how fully and honestly we are able to communicate. This leads me to end with something that's not a song, but if I were getting to make actual compilation tape or CD or whatever, I think I'd like to append, after all the songs, a little line of spoken word…

…from King Lear:

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Leah Hager Cohen and I Don't Know links:

the author's website

Financial Times review
Kirkus review
New York Journal of Books review review

CNN essay by the author
The Daily Beast essay by the author
Radio Boston interview with the author
Snowdrops' Garden interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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