Sunday, November 13, 2011

"What? Are These the 20 Most Important Questions in Human History - Or Is This a Game of 20 Questions?" by Mark Kurlansky

What is What? Has Mark Kurlansky drawn on philosophy, religion, literature, politics - indeed, all of civilization - to ask the twenty most important questions in human history, or has he given us a really smart, impossibly amusing game of twenty questions? In What?, Kurlansky considers the work of Confucius, Plato, Stein, Shakespeare, Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud, Hemingway, de Gaulle, Woolf, Dickinson, and others, distilling the deep questions of life to their sparkling essence. What? supplies endless fodder for thoughtful conversation, but also endless opportunity to ponder and be challenged - and entertained - by these questions in refreshingly original ways. As Kurlansky says: In a world that seems devoid of absolute certainties, how can we make declarative statements? Without asking the questions, how will we ever get to the answers? Why are we here? Why do we die? What is death? What does it mean the outer space is infinite, and what is after infinity? What is the significance of bird flight, why does matter decay, and how is our life different from that of a mosquito? Is there an end to these questions or is questioning as infinite as space? With Kurlansky's striking black-and-white woodcut illustrations throughout, this terrifically witty, deeply thought-provoking book is a tour de force that packs a tremendous wallop in a deliciously compact package.

This really is a most interesting, and yes, thought-provoking, little book. I'm not one for deep philosophical discussions (and I will admit that often attempting to read about said philosophers makes me than intelligent), but this book had me thinking about a lot of things. Perhaps the biggest question is this: how talented an author must you be to write an entire book in questions? Seriously. Every single sentence in this book is a question, meaning that Kurlansky starts with one question and answers all of the questions he asks with - you got it - more questions. The only time a question is not asked is when he writes his final word of the piece, and that is a one-word answer. I won't tell you what the answer is; you must read it for yourself.

Trust me, you'll enjoy it. I even found myself going back to reread parts of the book, it was that much fun. And it's only about 77 pages long, so you can digest it in one sitting, if you choose. I think it would work best to read each question, then set the book aside and really think about what he's written. I would love to get a copy of this and send it to my dad, who taught me in my youth "you never learn anything if you don't ask questions". It was a lesson he came to regret sometimes, as I asked lots of questions when I was a little girl. But as Kurlansky points out, we seem to stop asking those questions as we age; we just go along with what others tell us, or accept that things are what they are because we feel powerless to change them. Given all that the world has been through in the past few years, I think he's onto something; I think we should start asking a lot more questions, both of the outside world, and most importantly, of ourselves.

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