A Dictionary of the Unexplained

Hilary Mantel reviews Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained (edited by Una McGovern), in the LRB:

What an enticing prospect: A-Z elucidation, or at least the admission in print that most of life’s pressing questions are never answered. But won’t all the entries begin with ‘W’? Where has youth gone? Why dost thou lash that whore? Why are you looking at me like that? And of course the question that trails us from playgroup to dementia ward: well, if you will go on like that, what else did you expect?

But of course we’re not dealing with that kind of unexplained. The clue is on the cover: a person with popping eyes, flying through the air. This dictionary’s greatest fans will be people more interested in the exception than the rule, and often, it must be said, ignorant of what the rule is. To many of us, a great deal of what we encounter daily is unexplained. If you are in mid-life now, it is possible to have received what was described at the time as a good education and still know nothing of science or technology. Those on the other side of the cultural divide complain that the artists are proud of their deficiency, but this is seldom so. It’s easy, if you can read, to brush up your Shakespeare, but not so easy to use your spare half-hours to catch up on the inorganic chemistry you missed. It’s the people cringing from their scientific illiteracy who buy Stephen Hawking books they can’t read, as if having them on the shelf will make the knowledge rub off; they snap up tracts on atheism, too, to show that if they’re ignorant they’re at least rational. But still, our understanding of the mechanisms of the world remains fuzzy around the edges. If we were told that our computer worked because there was an angel inside, some of us couldn’t disprove it. The cultures were undivided in Leonardo’s day, but now those of us who deal in metaphors don’t know how to make machines. If we wanted to move a mountain, we would have to rely on faith.