Monday, May 30, 2011

A question a day would have taken years

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, questions, philosophy

Mark Kurlansky is best known for Salt and Cod, hefty books of historical and societal importance. Salt, in particular, weighs in at more than 500 pages. By contrast, his most recent title, What?, his 22nd, comes to 83 under-filled pages. That includes Acknowledgements and Index. The full title is What? Are These the 20 Most Important Questions in Human History – or Is This a Game of 20 Questions?.

The twenty chapters do indeed take up a question each, but not in the Universe-halving manner of a game of 20 questions. I suppose it could be argued that, simply for universality, some of the twenty must be at least among the most frequently asked questions (the Journalist's Arsenal is of course included). But the result is more like an extended game of Jeopardy!. And since a number of the items the author asks are quoted questions, we often see typographic fancies such as,
…why did the Confucians answer, "Why must your majesty use the word 'profit?'"?
The book opens with a half-page quote from Rilke, which is translated later on. Other than its few declarative sentences, every sentence in the book, except one, is a question. Although several philosophers and other great questioners are mentioned, it becomes clear that the author is not among them. After taking a single hour to read through the book, I puzzled for a day about how to react to it. My eventual reaction:

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