In Mark Kurlansky’s ‘What’, It’s All About the Journey, Not the Destination

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.

Jumping nimbly from one query to the next, Kurlansky doesn’t so much lay out his plan for the book as he jabs away at it, Zorro-like. Each line is a question that leads to the next, a tricky construct that attempts to make an entire book without the use of a declarative sentence. It’s to Kurlansky’s credit that he’s able to keep the act up without it seeming like an empty exercise as long as he does. Part of the reason for this is that he doesn’t waste too much time with ephemeral throat-clearing, but instead cuts right to the existential heart of the matter.

Talking in his “How Many?” chapter about Alexis de Toqueville’s big question about America from 1830 – “Can it be believed that democracy, after having overcome feudalism and overthrown kings, will retreat in the face of the bourgeois and the wealthy?” Kurlasky asks the big one:

Almost two centuries of American democracy later, doesn’t this question still lay here like the package no one wants to open? How many of Tocqueville’s troubling questions have been answered? How many really good questions ever do get answered? Or is it more important that they get asked?

It’s right there in that last line where the root of Kurlansky’s winsome exploration is to be found. In between the short, curious, thoughtful, and sometimes clownish chapters, with heady and dark etchings like gothic Rorschachs spacing them apart, he teases at the answer to that investigation, even though we all know the answer long before the book comes to it.

The wispiness of Kurlansky’s construction here makes for a quick read, but one that fades all too quickly from memory. That’s the problem with too many unanswered questions, they beguile but tend to slip the mind without the occasional answer to anchor them.

RATING 6 / 10