By the time I was old enough to register who my great Aunt Frances was, she was an “old Italian woman” the way that many of my fellow “Italian-by-way-of-Brooklyn” connazionales would recognize from their own families. Short, bearing and incredible resemblance to both her sister Mimi and my grandfather John, Aunt Frances lived int he greater New Hyde Park area with the rest of her siblings, and to my knowledge, really only got out when shew as invited over for family dinners (or in the very least, cake and coffee). Granted, for all I know, she had a swingin’ life–my view of my elderly relatives was confined to those who spent most of their time at home.
Anyway, Aunt Frances always gave me Christmas and birthday presents, even well into my teenage years when I didn’t really expect much from anyone. Okay, that’s a lie, because I don’t think you ever get over expecting at least something from a relative; you just don’t outwardly express it. I can’t remember the gifts she bought–most likely, they were random action figures or activity packs when Iw as a kid and some sort of chocolate when Iw as older–but one stands out to me because I still own it, which is The Book of Questions.
Written by biophysicist and biotech entrepreneur Gregory STock, The Book of Questions is exactly that: 200 quotations that are meant to be thought provoking and challenge you to think deeply. “They are,” he says in his introduction, “about your values, your beliefs, and your life,” and I imagine that back when i twas first published in 1987, it was stocked on the self-help shelves of any B. Dalton or Waldenbooks. Or perhaps it flew off the shelves, because it was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks, and the series itself (there are four books in total) sold 17 million total copies. I can’t say that I am surprised, because self-help books like this have been winding their way into the households of middle-aged adults for generations, and the ’70s and ’80s were particularly ripe times for this sort of thing.
Now, I can’t say what motivated her to buy me the book for my fourteenth birthday. Maybe it was because I was a smart, high-achieving student and she thought that I might enjoy stimulating my intellectual curiosity, even if the book was probably meant for adults with more life experience and not a suburban teenager whose worldview was the definition of naive.
Here’s the kicker, though. Aunt Frances bought the book, took it home, and then decided to flip through it before sending it to me only to discover that there were questions like:
#37: Would you be willing to give up sex for one year if you knew it would give you a much deeper sense of peace than you have now?
Having not actually had sex let alone kissed a girl at fourteen, I would have no way of honestly answering the question, but Aunt Frances was so scandalized by it (and similar questions) that she decided I didn’t need to see it at all. But instead of returning the book and buying something else, she went through it and literally blacked out every “inappropriate” question. So my birthday present that year was a custom-censored version of The Book of Questions.
My dad found this hilarious; I was perplexed, both at the censorship and why she bought the book in the first place. I maybe flipped through it once or twice before putting it on my bookshelf and forgetting it until she sent me another copy that was signed “Nothing is bleeped out. Love on your 14th.” SO I replaced the “edited for television” version with the “real” one and forgot it until I was sixteen and decided to use my journal to record my deep thoughts. I’d been keeping a journal since I was twelve, but most of the entries were, up until that point, about crushes I had on girls and really shitty poetry, not deep philosophical and ethical considerations. THat changed on February 22, 1993 when I answered question #174:
How many of your friendships have lasted more than ten years? Which of your current friends do you still feel will be important to you ten years from now?”
My response was about the one or two people I’d know since preschool or kindergarten and then I talked about how I was really good friends with my dad and probably would be at 26. I suppose that stayed true at 26, and I don’t know if I am really going to spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of my friendships in this space, although I will say that I answered the questions on a consistent basis for most of the rest of the school year and then less frequently, as the summer an fall of 1993 rolled on. I would check off the questions I answered, for a total of 21 journaled answered that finish up on August 28, 1993, right before the beginning of my junior year (and to be honest, there is something about my junior year of high school … I’ll have to put a pin in that and come back to it later).
I’d like to say that my answers to questions I checked off were comically embarrassing, but they’re so to the point that I didn’t leave much room for unintentional comedy. Okay, my answer to #31:
If you knew that there would be a nuclear war in a week, what would you do?
is “I would make love to _______” is fucking hilarious, especially the use of “make love”. But mostly, they’re on the level. When asked if I wanted to be smarter or more physically attractive, I complained about the scar on my face. When asked if anything is too serious to be joked about, I wrote about how AIDS is really serious; and when asked how I would dress if I wanted to look sexy, I said, “Well, I’d dress normally and hope that somebody notices me”. I’m struck by my own sincerity in these entries and start to wonder at what point I became so cynical.
So my answers to The Book of Questions were in line with the same mishmash of weird feelings and naïve confusion that makes up the rest of my journal from when I was sixteen. For what it’s worth, though, the book asks some pretty interesting questions that would make for great introspection fodder from someone with more experience. I’m curious as to how this was used by the adults who bought it. I mean, I imagine that many copies of the book got flipped through and put aside, but I can also see people journaling with it or maybe even busting it out at parties. Can you imagine those? I’m picturing the most narcissistic asshole you know holding court about politics and social issues … which is what your narcissistic asshole relatives do at Thanksgiving … without the help of a book.
For what it’s worth, this is a very good book, mostly because it’s not trying to sell you something. These days (and I suppose back in 1987), pop psychology/self-help shelves are filled with influencers promising you solutions (many of which are to buy more of the influencer’s shit) and we are less inclined as a culture to actually ponder the questions we need to. Stock has kept this updated over the years and that makes me wonder if it’s time for The Book of Questions to make a comeback. After all, we so rarely slow down and think these days.