Mr. Gradgrind Answers Life's Rhetorical Questions

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Mr. Gradgrind is the alter ego of Paul Brians, professor of English at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, who sets out to provide specific, concrete answers to life's rhetorical questions. Brians talks with Scott Simon.


So many of life's questions seem never to be answered. Are we alone? Why are we here? What's it all about, Alfie?

But one man has set out to provide specific, concrete answers to life's rhetorical questions on his Web site. Paul Brians is a professor of English at Washington State University in Pullman. He joins us from KWSU in Northwest Public Radio in Pullman.

Professor Brians, thanks for being with us.

Professor PAUL BRIANS (English, Washington State University): Thank you.

SIMON: And why did you decide to try and answer some of these questions?

Prof. BRIANS: Well, I created this character, Mr. Gradgrind, as my alter ego, out of frustration with the science fiction students that I had who were scientists who couldn't see beyond metaphor when they looked at a book and there was something wrong with the celestial mechanics and, therefore, they couldn't appreciate the plot or the characters. So I thought it would be funny to create a site where I address rhetorical questions and try to give exactly literal answers to them.

SIMON: For example, how high is the moon?

Prof. BRIANS: It varies between 356,000 and 407,000 kilometers in distance from the surface of the Earth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BRIANS: Its average distance being 384,400 kilometers.

SIMON: Okay. And well, on the subject of eternal verities, tell me who wrote the book of love?

Prof. BRIANS: Rene of Anjou, King of Naples, 1435-1480, wrote and illustrated his "Book of Love = Le Cueur d'Amours Espris" sometime after 1473 while living idly in Provence.

SIMON: Thank you. Now, Gradgrind is your alter ego or one of your alter egos, it seems like.

Prof. BRIANS: Right.

SIMON: That's a name from Dickens, isn't it?

Prof. BRIANS: Yes, it is - from "Hard Times." And he's a teacher who absolutely abhors all flights of fancy in imagination and creativity and so he grinds his students down with nothing but raw facts.

SIMON: So, for example, somebody asked, what's up, doc?

Prof. BRIANS: Presuming that the doctor addresses a physician one must assume that the question refers to the identity of the topmost parts of the human body. In which case, the short answer is the frontal lobe of the brain, the skull, the scalp and if any, the hair.

SIMON: Thank you. Thank you. You know - and the question that I know is on the minds of many people in our audience, particularly in the weekend, is what do you do with a drunken sailor?

Prof. BRIANS: D. Kolb and E.K.E. Gunderson's study, "Alcoholism in the United States Navy" reports that attempts to prevent, diagnose and rehabilitate sailors suffering from alcohol-related problems are to a measurable degree superior to the older approach of simple hospitalization. This was published in "Armed Forces and Society: Volume 3, No. 2," pages 183 to 194.

SIMON: Are there people who suggest other rhetorical questions to you?

Prof. BRIANS: Yes. I get mail every once in a while from somebody asking more. And the truth is that it's hard to find good rhetorical questions that have funny but literal answers to them. And I'm kind of content with the way this list is now.

SIMON: And how long has this been going on?

Prof. BRIANS: Date it from the Wilkinson microwave Anisotropy Probe, produced an estimated age for the universe of 13.7 billions years, plus or minus a 1 percent margin of error.

SIMON: Paul Brians, Mr. Gradgrind, thanks very much.

Prof. BRIANS: Thank you very much. Goodbye.

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