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I Don't Know
Photo courtesy of John Earle

How many times have you faked your way through a conversation with a person whose name you’ve forgotten? Or refused to stop and ask for directions? Or feigned familiarity with an obscure French poet? (“Le Boijoiré? Why, yes, I love his early work.”)

Admitting you don’t know something is embarrassing. But perhaps more important, pretending you do can be “a vital currency in our social interaction.”

So says Leah Hager Cohen, author of the slim but poignant new book I Don’t Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t).

Through telling anecdotes mixed with scientific research, Cohen, whose previous work includes the novel The Grief of Others, makes a compelling case for having the courage to confess your knowledge gaps.

On the one hand, she explains how we cut off further learning when we refuse to ask for guidance. (You might actually like that French poet, if you only got to know him.) On the other, she warns of the dangerous implications of faking your way, detailing a terrifying story of a pilot who crashed a plane rather than admit his uncertainty.

Overall, the book is a thoughtful look at an oft-neglected subject, and Cohen’s bid for enlightened ignorance is both generous and refreshing.

Permission granted to play the fool.

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