Why Would Anybody Want to Compile a Book of Questions? Gregory Stock Thought You'd Never Ask

updated 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Since the dawn of time, mankind has pondered some eternal questions: Is there life after death? What's it all about? Where did I leave my car keys? Now, thanks to Gregory Stock, a 38-year-old biophysicist with an overly inquisitive mind, mankind has precisely 217 new questions over which to furrow its collective brow.

Stock's teasers are on the order of "Would you be willing to give up all television for the next five years if it would induce someone to provide for 1,000 starving children in Indonesia?" (No. 150) and "Would you be willing to eat a bowl of live crickets for $40,000?" (No. 206). This leads to the next question: In an age that is looking for answers, how did Stock's Book of Questions become a best-seller?

Or is that a stupid question?

Whatever, the fact remains that book purchasers have bought 880,000 copies of The Book of Questions since it came out last spring. This remarkable—if questionable—publishing phenomenon traces its origins, as so many things do, to a chance encounter. One afternoon in 1985 at an Oregon retreat, Stock and a dentist friend struck up a conversation with a woman that was both engrossing and stimulating. Stock emerged from the experience asking himself, naturally, a question: "Wouldn't it be nice to have that kind of conversation routinely with strangers?" He and his friend thought provocative questions would be a good catalyst for such conversations. "We came up with half a dozen that day," he remembers. "One was, 'If you could meet a person with whom you could fall madly in love, and you knew that that person would die in six months, would you do it?' " Now there's an icebreaker.

For the next two months Stock talked with scores of people—mostly women—in public places. He would ask them random questions, such as "When was the last time you cried in front of another person?" Stock says he found the subjects of his questioning were more surprised than hostile. They also, on occasion, responded positively to his request for a date. "I really wanted to get to know somebody," admits Stock, who is twice divorced. "I didn't want to go to bars. I prefer depth."

Dollars don't hurt either. When a friend, ad-agency executive David Breznau, suggested they form a publishing company and organize Stock's questions into a book, Greg, for once, had a ready answer. They combined their resources and with a $6,000 investment self-published a slim volume entitled, simply, The Book of Questions.

At first there were few buyers, but after revising and expanding the text and getting himself on radio talk shows, Stock received an offer from Workman Publishing, a small but highly successful New York company.

Now in its 18th printing, the $3.95 Book of Questions is available in 15 foreign countries, and it was on the New York Times best-seller list for 27 weeks, nine of them at No. 1. An un mistakable sign of the book's success is the fact that it has spawned an irreverent satire, The Book of Stupid Questions, which features head scratches such as: "If you could redraw the boundaries of the state you live in, what shape would it be?" or "Do you have a favorite toe?" The author laughs off such gibes, noting that his book is being discussed in high school and college classrooms, and Stock knows of at least one psychiatrist who has used it in therapy sessions.

The inquisitive Mr. Stock was born in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and grew up in Tucson, Ariz., and Baltimore. After simultaneously receiving a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in biophysics at Johns Hopkins in 1971, Stock spent four more years at Hopkins working on his doctorate and dabbling in politics.

While building his collection of conversation starters, Stock also studied for an MBA at Harvard and graduated in 1987. Now Stock is in the enviable position of having a best-selling book and three graduate degrees. Though he has earned about $250,000 so far from his publishing success, Stock still shares a "funky" rented house in Arlington, Mass., with three women (all just friends, he says).

What's the Question Mark King up to now? Last June he founded Magazine Discoveries, a mail-order company that offers readers the chance to purchase single issues of obscure American magazines and journals. He also hopes to start a foundation to disperse monies for socially progressive causes. Then there is his mysterious new book coming out from Workman in July. Neither author nor publisher will divulge the subject matter. But it is not, insists Stock, a sequel to The Book of Questions. "No Rocky II," he says. Stock has consented to a 1989 "Questions Calendar," but that's that. Period. Finito. No question about it.

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