The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six
by Mr. Jonathon S. Keats '94
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Random House; 2009; 240 pp.
Genre: Fiction
Category: Literature
Additional Information - Library Catalog

Magical stories of the thirty-six anonymous saints whose virtues sustain the world.

Conceptual artist, novelist, essayist, and journalist, Jonathon Keats has written a daring, original new work. Marked by lean, powerful prose, these stories, loosely drawn from Jewish folklore, re-imagine the Lamedh-Vov—the thirty-six anonymous saints whose virtues sustain the world. A fictional Foreword and Afterword set up a mystical narrator and frame the stories.  

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 ultimately make the world a better place. In this captivating story cycle, we meet twelve of these secret heroes, including a timekeeper’s son who shows a sleepless village the beauty of dreams; a gambler who teaches a king ruled by the tyranny of the past to roll the dice; a thief who realizes his job is to keep his fellow townsfolk honest; and a golem—a woman made of mud—who teaches kings and peasants the real nature of humanity.
Imaginative and bold with startlingly beautiful conclusions, these unconventional fables will transport you to another time while their unlikely heroes linger in your mind. As provocative as it is intelligent, Keats’s book explores not only the uncertainty of morality, but also the limits of judgment.

Advanced Praise for THE BOOK OF THE UNKNOWN:

“Echoes of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem and S.Y. Agnon sound throughout this high-concept collection’s engaging stories….Unusual and charming stories that successfully revive a nearly forgotten form of storytelling.”—Kirkus Reviews

  “Keats’ world is a fun one. His allegorical world resembles some hybrid of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest and Shrek’s moss-covered environs. Visions of cloaks and pushcarts and thatched roofs abound throughout each wonderful fable as it weaves together mysticism and conflict. Magic and exaggeration exist, not in an attempt for wizardry and the supernatural but to facilitate the human relationships within each fable. Passing from fable to fable, a recognition of something odd arises: each protagonist is likable and deserves championing. The characters are unique: a thief is encouraged, a liar rewarded, and a luckless gambler knows nothing but happiness. Each character suffers some moralistic adversity yet continues striving for goodness. Although they might stumble, they eventually find redemption and happiness. Keats’ characters occupy a world where goodness prevails and redemption finds the right person. Our world is not so tidy, but perhaps if characters can be good, we can be, too. This is not our world, but it is most definitely one worth reading.” —Booklist

 “Keats (The Pathology of Lies) re-imagines Jewish folklore in his collection of stories about the Talmudic idea of the Lamedh-Vov, 36 righteous souls who must exist at all times in order for humanity, and the  world, to sustain itself. A fictional author's foreword by Jay Katz, Ph.D., summarizes the idea of the Lamedh-Vov and establishes its legitimacy by citing a list of names Katz found while excavating a German synagogue. The stories that follow—covering 12 of the 36 souls—are based on Katz's discussions with villagers. The heroes of these stories include a liar, a thief, an idiot and a whore—not your typical folk heroes. Gimmel the Gambler, for example, loses his fortune to a beautiful peasant woman with one roll of the dice; with her new riches, she's able to marry the king. . . . Keats's ear for the language of folktales comes through nicely.” —Publishers Weekly

 “These charming stories, told with authority–yet oddly delicate and wholly delightful–are enchanting. To read them is to become transfixed with that long-forgotten childhood wonder. One feels in the hands of a masterful and magical storyteller.” —Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge

“Keats creates an original and captivating world of surprise where scoundrels are saints and dreams descend on villages like rain. There’s mystery and magic on every page, and a deeply inspiring humanity at the heart of every fable. Finally, a writer who understands that adults need fairy tales as much, if not more, than children.” —Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Corpus Christi and director of the creative writing program at Harvard University

“The Book of the Unknown is based on ancient Jewish lore and set in pre-modern Eastern Europe.  Add Jonathon Keats’ 21st-century American sensibility, and the result is a delightful and provocative brew–one of a kind.”  —Janet Hadda, author of Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life, and Professor of Yiddish Emerita at UCLA 

"The Book of the Unknown earns Jonathon Keats a place in line with Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and Isaac Bashevis Singer. In language at once phantasmagorical, seductive, and reverent, Keats imagines the preposterous misadventures of people who are so holy they are unknown even to themselves. And, in so doing, he reopens the Jewish folk imagination–and our own." —Lawrence Kushner, author of Kabbalah: A Love Story, and The Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco.

Learn more about the book and author at Random House.


Jonathan Keats '94

Photo by 
Jennifer Designer

Jonathon Keats is a novelist, conceptual artist, essayist, and journalist. His work has been featured on PBS, NPR, and the BBC World Service. He is the art critic for San Francisco magazine, a columnist for Wired magazine and Artweek, a contributing editor to Art & Auction, and a correspondent for publications including the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Popular Science, Prospect, Forbes Life, and He is the author of the novels The Pathology of Lies and Lighter Than Vanity. He has been a guest lecturer at many universities and has been awarded fellowships by Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the MacNamara Foundation, and the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. He serves on the National Book Critics Circle, for which he has chaired the criticism and fiction committees. Recently he showed extraterrestrial abstract artwork at the Judah L. Magnes Museum. He has also attempted to genetically engineer God in a petri dish, in collaboration with scientists at the University of California. He opened the world's first porn theater for house plants in the town of Chico, and petitioned Berkeley to pass a fundamental law of logic, a work commissioned by the city's annual Arts Festival. He is represented by Modernism Gallery in San Francisco.