What? By Mark Kurlansky

What's the point, and why bother?
Click to follow

Can you imagine a book in which every sentence bar one is a question?

Don't you think it would become irritating to have everything framed in that way? After only three sentences of reading it here, aren't you already annoyed?

Welcome to What?: Are These Really the 20 Most Important Questions in Human History? by Mark Kurlansky - a book that strikes me as a poorly thought out, badly executed, glaringly superficial look at the nature of human inquiry, that is all the more disappointing because Kurlansky is capable of writing excellent books, having in the past delivered some brilliant non-fiction (Cod, 1968 and Non-violence among them) and some pretty decent fiction to boot.

The central premise of What? is an intriguing one. Why do we ask questions? Does our inquisitive nature set us apart from other species? But the ideas in What? are barely developed beyond the scribblings on the back of an envelope, and the irritating framework of writing it entirely in questions merely serves to obfuscate a lack of depth.

It should also be pointed out that this book is expensive, for what it is. It's an incredibly slim volume, consisting of only 77 pages of content typeset in a large font size on pages with wide margins, interspersed with woodcut illustrations and including 20 chapter breaks, for which the publishers are charging £9.99.

Despite the lack of content, What? manages to be repetitive and tedious. Its occasional attempts at humour fall flat. It's as if the author became so in thrall to his own gimmick that he failed to consider the content of what he was writing. The thoughts of great thinkers from throughout the ages are touched upon, but only touched upon. So we get occasional quotes from Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud and so on, with precious little context, explanation or coherence. Jumping from Shakespeare to the Jewish faith, from the Bible to English manners (a particularly misguided chapter), there is so little focus that they might as well have pixelated the text and be done with it.

And it's all so frustrating, not least because there are glimpses of the real Kurlanksy through the murk. The book begins and ends with beautiful quotes from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet that clearly show Kurlansky is capable of deeper thought than this flippant guff. "Can you spend too much time asking questions?" he writes at one point. In the case of this book, the answer is yes.