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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

What are questions for?


A lot of brainpower is spent in our house these days pondering fundamental questions. It is more like homework than self-directed learning, as the topics are chosen by our infant daughter: the school is Sesame Street, the headmaster is Big Bird, and the coursework is mostly drawn from The Sesame Street Platinum All-Time Favorites album (1995, re-issued 2008). 

Much of the album tackles these fundamental questions head-on. What is it like to be green? When I turned inwards and put this question to myself bluntly, I found only the purest invincible ignorance; but Kermit the Frog has devoted considerable thought to the matter. What do I do when I’m alone? With this I’m on somewhat firmer ground. Would you live on the moon if you could, or merely visit? What do you see in the mirror? (For American readers, John Milbank holds up a looking-glass on page 31). Quite a bit of thinking being asked here, you are doubtless saying. What makes a thing trash? Or our daughter’s current favorite: who are the people in your neighborhood? (See J.D. Flynn’s inquiries on page 20).

These are indisputably great questions. Some of them have a concrete purpose and will teach our daughter something important: the fireman and the postman and the garbageman are people you are likely to see around your neighborhood. They are important parts of it. Other questions have a social purpose: to live on the moon is, at the very least, to adopt an entirely new social scene. Still others, such as Kermit’s reflections on green-ness, or the question of music’s effect on our emotions (see Aaron James’s consideration of David Willcocks, page 51) are of a more philosophical kind. One easily imagines Wittgenstein pondering them.

The inquisitiveness of toddlers is a cliché, but the instinct persists as we age. Curiosity and duty must be two of the most common motives for any action a person takes. In theory the whole profession of journalism is premised on our desire to know what is happening, what is being done by and to whom, and why. (For C.J. Ciaramella’s troubling investigation into what civil asset forfeiture is being used to do to you, see page 12). We work all day, mostly telling things to people who need to know them, or finding answers for things we don’t know ourselves. We go home and figure out what needs to be done, what should be had for dinner (See Marlo Safi’s reflections on cooking, page 42).

So we spend all day asking things for work, and then relax by surprising ourselves with movies, books, and television. Not only are we held in rapt attention by the plot of a story, wondering what happens next, but we become invested in its moral purpose. Netflix dramas draw us into the social issues of the day; as in Dickens readers see laid before them the conditions of the London working classes (see Peter Tonguette’s appraisal of the great author, page 43). If we prefer instead to kick back with a documentary or history book, we are still driven by a desire to learn and know things because we do not. (Sam Kriss’s review of Bill O’Reilly’s contributions to historical science can be read on page 37). Or perhaps we stuff the entertainments for the night and go out to socialize; we talk to our friends about what we’ve heard, what we haven’t, what’s happening, and what isn’t. (See Brandon McGinley’s biography of a Pennsylvania bar and its patrons on page 25.)

But the final purpose of our curiosity is not to continually surprise ourselves with what is new. We ask in order to answer. When we talk to our grandparents about their lives, and learn about the things they’ve done, we learn about ourselves. (And thus we would be immeasurably worse off without Mary Kate Skehan’s story about her grandfather on page 35). We learn about the lives of the saints and martyrs in order to see ourselves reflected more perfectly in them (Timothy Nerozzi contemplates the legacy of a Japanese martyr on page 10). We ask our questions with the comfort that every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. And—who knows?—perhaps this consolation awaits Kermit also.

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