WHAT? by Mark Kurlansky


Are These the Twenty Most Important Questions in Human History--Or, Is This a Game of 20 Questions?
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A conceptual essay collection as parlor game.

Even shorter than this very short book initially appears (with lots of white space and full-page illustrations), the latest from Kurlansky (The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris, 2010, etc.) is a radical departure from his usual work, which features exhaustive research into topics of comparatively limited scope (Salt, Cod, etc.). Here the author uses an interrogative shorthand to sketch inexhaustible concepts such as the purpose and meaning of life (and death), the essence of literature and the ontology of asking questions. Nearly every sentence (as well as chapter titles) ends with a question mark. Some are questions; others are declarative sentences reworked into questions. Some blur the line between serious and seriously goofy: “If whoers are gossips, wheners impatient, whyers dreamers, where-ers lost, and howers pragmatists, is it the whaters who cut to the heart of things,” he asks in the title chapter. “What am I talking about? What is this book? What is a book?” And so on. Kurlansky also cuts to the heart of metaphysical inquiry: “Why are we here? Why is all of this here? What is death? What does it mean that outer space is infinite and what is after infinity?” Is the book’s concept a good one? Does it compromise the author’s originality that the recent novel by Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? (2009), adopted a similar stylistic strategy? Though the book can easily be read in one short sitting, it might try the patience of some readers.

Two of the chapter titles anticipate two of the likely responses: “So?” and “Huh?”

Pub Date: May 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8027-7906-9
Page count: 96pp
Publisher: Walker
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2011


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