In this debut memoir, an education specialist travels across America and asks people, “If you could ask everyone you met just one question, what would you ask?”
Sassaman, after dropping out of college, was persuaded by his father to sign-up for the outdoor-education program Outward Bound. There, a wilderness instructor challenged him to meditate on one big question per day. Years later, after getting a master’s degree in education from Harvard University, Sassaman was still asking questions. He traveled, tracing an ellipse from Boston to San Francisco and back, and meditated on “Basic questions, like the kind you ask yourself in at the end of high school, or throughout college. What does it all mean? How are we connected to each other?” He met friends along the way, old and new, and they told him the questions they’d like to ask people. (It’s entirely possible to skip straight to the end of the book to see all 745 answers, but more patient readers will enjoy the larger story that Sassaman tells.) “Have you lived your life to the fullest?” asks a young student on a wilderness adventure. “Are you willing to die?” challenges a 12-year-old living off the grid in Arizona. A BBC reporter at Burning Man in Nevada wonders, “What is your ultimate goal for happiness?” Not every one of Sassaman’s encounters went according to plan, though. On his way back east, for example, an old friend angrily confronted him: “Here’s my suspicion,” he said. “You don’t actually have an answer for yourself…for your own stupid project!” Readers may wonder the same. Also, plenty of people opted not to engage him (“Usually when people said, ‘I’ll get back to you on that one,’ it meant: ‘I will not be getting back to you,’ ” he notes). But Sassaman was dogged in his pursuit and unsparing in his self-examination. Readers learn as much about his own checkered past and accompanying guilt as they do about the country through which he travels, and that’s as it should be—this is a memoir, after all. However, it’s a rare example of a personal story that raises more questions than it answers, and deliberately so. As readers turn the pages, they’ll inevitably find themselves trying to answer their own version of Sassaman’s question.
A rewarding journey across a continent and into the author’s own past.