For an author who has arguably made much of his career out of answering queries that you didn’t know you wanted answers to (how important was salt to the development of human civilization?), Mark Kurlansky has some nerve positing an entire book as one long inquiry. Granted, What? isn’t exactly a tome, at 96 pages it’s the nonfiction equivalent of a novella – the tomette. As macro in focus as his earlier works of nonfiction were monuments of specificity, What? is pleasurable and gamelike, toying with the reader right from the subtitle: Are These the 20 Most Important Questions in Human History – Or Is This a Game of 20 Questions? It doesn’t give anything away to say that question’s not answered.
In 20 short chapters, each focused around a specific interrogative, Kurlansky goes from the obvious journalistic big ones (“How?” “Why?” “What?”) to formulations that appear dashed off at first blush (“What Do We Hate About Children?” “Brooklyn?”) but on further reflection seem more thoughtful, if only slightly – and the answers to those last two, by the way, are: they ask endless questions, and Walt Whitman’s fundamental curiousity.