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The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-six

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  168 ratings  ·  42 reviews
Marvelous and mystical stories of the thirty-six anonymous saints whose decency sustains the world–reimagined from Jewish folklore.

A liar, a cheat, a degenerate, and a whore. These are the last people one might expect to be virtuous. But a legendary Kabbalist has discovered the truth: they are just some of the thirty-six hidden ones, the righteous individuals who ultimate...more
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Published February 10th 2009 by Random House (first published 2009)
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Finally, the LibraryThing early reviewers program has yielded a good book. I'd previously received "Tipperary" and "On Becoming an Alchemist," both of which were, in my opinion, utter stinkers. So at first my expectations were rather low when I found out that "The Book of the Unknown" was coming my way.

Boy, was I mistaken. This book was really good.

The book dips into Jewish folklore to (fictionally) examine the "Lamedh-Vov," who are the 36 anonymous "saints" whose existence and subsequent actio...more
The Book of the Unknown, by Jonathon Keats, is framed by a fictional Author's Foreword and a fictional Editor's Afterword, which place the pages contained between them into a twilight land, a fantasy realm where fairy tales are literally true. It is an effective method to coax the reader into the right frame of mind for these wonderfully bizarre tales. The foreword, in itself a kind of fable, presents the grounding fiction for the entire book: these tales were transcribed by a scholar after rese...more
There were parts of this book that I, being the folk tale enthusiast that I am, absolutely loved. It was worth reading if only for the first story ("Aleph the Idiot"), which is just beautiful, and for the re-introduction of creatures like dybbuks. But as good as some of the moments in this book are, Keats displays a surprisingly chauvinistic bent (I'm honestly not sure if "chauvanistic" is the right word, but what I mean refers specifically to his descriptions of women's experiences of sex, part...more

The Book of the Unknown reads very quickly and smoothly, though it is not light reading. Each story presented has a definite lesson- not in a quasi-Judaic morality tale way, but in a "You would enjoy your life more if you were more like this person" sort of way. I did not feel that the book was especially religious, so I hope its description of being based on Jewish folklore does not turn people away from it. I am neither Jewish nor religious, and I really enjoyed the book. My personal favorite...more
Aug 08, 2013 Stacia rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: probably fans of folktales...
Shelves: 2013
A different (at least for me) set of folktales (supposedly variations on some Jewish folktales), some clever, some charming, some disturbing. Enjoyed both the Author's Foreword & the Editors' Afterword as they added some fun, fictional surroundings for the set of tales -- adding a little layer to the 'mystery' of the telling of the tales.

I'm not a huge fan of short stories (& don't necessarily lump folktales into a 'short stories' category even though they are, I suppose), but I found th...more
Ill Literati Crazy People In Books
One of the best books I have read in the past 24 years (since I was born).

In The Book of the Unknown, Keats spins fairy and folktales for adults, each based upon a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Reading through these stories, I was struck by how deeply each one resonated in me: Keats writes his way into universal truths in a fresh yet deeply rooted way that is both vaguely familiar and refreshingly enlightening. Discovering this book was a renewal of my faith in great writing that has the power...more
I forgot how entertaining folk tales are. The first story about the fool brought a tear to my eye, and I was hooked until the end.
The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty Six brings to life the concept of the Lamedh-Vov, the thirty-six pure souls who must exist at all times to justify humanity, as outlined in Jewish folklore. Coincidentally, I encountered this concept very recently in another novel, called The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss, which definitely influenced my expectation that these thirty-six pure souls would be the most righteous human beings. And yet. Here we are presented with stories of twelve lives...more
While I was enjoying this book, I had never heard of Jonathan Keats. He is a conceptual artist whose most famous project seems to be the Atheon, a temple devoted to science and rational belief, at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California, where he is challenging people to question their conceptions about science and religion.

"When you listen to people like Nobel laureate cosmologist Steven Weinberg, or Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, you hear a lot of talk about how god-based religio...more
Scott Foley
This book originally drew me in because it is a collection of short stories following a particular theme. These stories are based upon Jewish folklore, and while I don't know the first thing about Jewish folklore, customs, or religion, my ignorance in no way hampered my ability to enjoy this book.

Jonathan Keats, the real writer, uses a fabricated author named Jay Katz to lend the twelve stories in this collection authenticity. I won't spoil any plot points, but I thought Keats used a creative wa...more
We're so extremely used to the known fairytale formulas from Andersen and Grimm that when we come across an innovative, yet familiar approach we might go: but this is ............... good! At least that's what happened to me when I read the short stories in this novel. My notion of what a fairytale was or ought to be was pleasantly disrupted. At times complex, always intriguing and never rife with obligatory meaningful messages, the thirty six tales are novel, entertaining and deep. In my opinio...more
I can't get enough of Jewish fiction - either historical fiction, or fiction that infuse Jewish culture and faith into the story. This is a collection of stories that are more fables than regular story. The author even created a fake author to advance the 'collection'. He has taken the tenet in Judaism involving not destroying anything written about G*d and the myth of humans who are chosen by G*d to keep the world from basically imploding, and woven them together.

The writing is exquisite. Usual...more
From the Babylonian Talmud and Kabbalistic folk legend comes the idea that at any time there must be 36 righteous people on earth to justify the existence of humankind in the eyes of God. I don't know the legends, though after reading Keat's wonderful collection of tales I'd like to learn more about them. I can only hope they are as wild and wonderful as Keats' stories.

Keats' tales discuss in allegorical fashion what it means to be "righteous," and it nearly always turns out to be exactly the op...more
Delightful. Written within the artificial framework of academic research into the Lamedh-Vov ("the thirty-six pure souls who must exist at all times, to justify humanity" according to Jewish folklore), we get twelve mystical stories of inconspicuous humans, who often seem to hold despicable positions within their communities. But they are each incredible in their own way.

I read a preprint, so the pagination is not included for the following snippets. I'll indicate which story each is from:

"She s...more
I found this collection really fascinating. Told like fairy tales, these stories purport to be about the Lamedh-Vov (Lamed Vav Tzadikim?)--the 36 righteous souls who must exist in order that the world not be destroyed by God. It's a part of some Jewish traditions. I know next to nothing about Jewish traditions, but that is what the internet tells me. As well as the intro to the book itself.

Actually, I learn a lot about Jewish culture from reading fiction. Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Un...more
I was just wanting a book of short stories when I saw this book on the display of staff recommendations at Borders. Being a collection of Folk/Fairy tales involving Jewish myth and culture, it seemed intriguing and unique -- something I might like for a change of pace from my usual reading fare of non-fiction and occasional classic fiction.

Well, it didn't entertain, enliven, or enlighten me as much as I had hoped. The stories were mildly entertaining, but they are all set in landscapes and cultu...more
April Helms
The title is slightly misleading, for this collection only contains 12 tales, with an allusion to the 36. I wonder if there will be follow-ups. At any rate, this has twelve fables concerning individuals regarded as saints. It's an eclectic mix, which includes a golem, a liar, a loafer and a whore. But they all, whether intentionally or no, wind up making those around them better then they were before. These stories take the traditional fable and fairy tales and give them a strange twist. Good lu...more
According to Jewish folklore, there exists 36 people on the planet at a time; their roles are to help maintain the order and continued existence of the world. In Jonathon Keats' novel, he cleverly pens tales about a third of this group - as revealing all 36 might casue the world to suffer and end. The quirky stories introduce fabulous characters offering true insight into humanity itself. A professional thief demonstrates value beyond tangible goods, a gambler introduces chance to a town stifled...more
Leif Erik
Sort of a Yiddish Calvino. Not the sort of collection you ought to blitz through in one day ( but you could ) but rather break off a couple every so often. Good bedtime reading although God alone knows what kind of dreams you may have.
Reading this with Shelley. It had an interesting introduction but it makes me wonder how much of the stories were actually created by the author because it sounds like they are "re-tellings". I'm also wondering how closely the stories are all linked.

So this was a collection of unconnected stories. It had golems, angels, demons, and miracle healers but it really wasn't a swords and sorcery fantasy collection. It tended more toward "magical realism". Some of the stories ended rather abruptly but m...more
This book grabbed me from the first pages--the author's foreword creates a mystical, intriguing framing device for a collection of archetypal characters, each presenting their own lesson. Loved the structure and soul of this book, although, towards the end of it, the formulaic nature of the story cycle becomes predictable. In all, I really enjoyed this book, and--as a side note--my dreams were incredibly affected by this book while reading. An excellent escape into folklore and philosophy.
It was recommended to me by a boy-genius who is a super romantic, which pretty much sums up the book. The stories and characters are smart and makes you stop and think, but at the same time they're idyllic, an innocence that makes you want to hug the next homeless guy you see. Because no matter what title we give these people--a fool, liar, whore, cheat, whatever, they're people nonetheless, and it makes you want to believe in them again. A must, if you like folktales/fairytales.
I've been reading these stories over the 3 weeks I've had the book and - for lack of a better word - have been enchanted. I am not familiar with Jewish folklore and folktales. But good storytelling is universal and these were good. A little magic, a little humor, sometimes a moral lesson (think Aesop's fables). After trying to read Pathology of Lies and finding it too creepy this was a real change and I liked this side of this author.
Mary Overton
My favorite sort of book -- a collection of invented folktales presented as false documents, and holy ones at that -- stories about 12 of the 36 unlikely saints who, by their presence in the world, make humanity bearable to God so He doesn't destroy us in a fit of disgust. Their role is unknown, even to themselves, and unacknowledged. As I read, I began looking around at the people I notice the least and wondering, is that one a secret saint?
Christine Barry
I enjoyed this book and its set of fables. It took me a few stories to really get into this book, but then I really started to take an interest in the storytelling. I was a bit perplexed by the editor's note at the end of the book that discussed Jay Katz's disappearance. After a bit of online research, I've come to the conclusion that Katz (Keat's alter ego) is dead, but Keats is still very much alive.
I think, anyway...
A really interesting collection of stories. Very fable-esk in their telling and morals/lessons. I have a deep interest in fables and fairy tales. Especially those posed in a very honest and culturally distinct way. One of my favorite elected classes in college was an understanding folk lore and folk tales subject focus. I've gained a thorough enjoyment of such stories since.
Paul (formerly known as Current)
If you are interested in folklore, then these stories are for you. In the world of these stories, you leave behind the simplicity of good versus evil and get to contemplate how each of the twelve presented in these stories is one of the thirty-six righteous people necessary to justify humanity. These stories ask you to think about what it means to be human.
Overall I really enjoyed the book. I had to read it for a storytelling class. I would have liked to have seen an overarching story to bring all the characters together. That of course is not the purpose of the book. It is more a conglomerate of folklore than a short story or novella. Very enjoyable nonetheless.
Great stories, perfect for reading in short bursts. Though written in the vein of fairy and folktale, the only parts which ring false are the sections in the foreword and afterword about the "author," Jay Katz. I enjoyed the inventiveness of each story, as well as the introductory bits about Yaakov ben Eleazar.
This is a wondrous book with a few suprises up its sleeve. While it is easy to be lulled into a sense that these are goody-goody fairytales polished up for adults, there are true lessons and a sharp and unexpected sting here and there.
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Jonathon Keats is an American conceptual artist and experimental philosopher known for creating large-scale thought experiments. Keats was born in New York City and studied philosophy at Amherst College. He now lives in San Francisco and Italy.
More about Jonathon Keats...
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