~ Archive for Books ~

The Three Questions


I chanced upon this book when I was getting a gift for my supervisor’s firstborn child. Before this, I had given much thought on the most suitable gift for his son – the common ones like a teddy bear or a toy car or an alphabet book did cross my mind. Yet I felt that none of this would have made much sense, considering the fact that I wanted a gift that was meaningful, yet not too complex such that a kid would find it difficult understand its inherent value.

Another problem that plaqued me while figuring out what to get for my supervisor’s baby was ‘Where can I get baby gifts?’ Considering the fact that I’m not too versed with the shopping scene in Boston, it was quite a conundrum for me to ponder. Surely the upscale retail outlets along Newbury Street would be the least likely place for me to find a gift suitable for a 4-week old baby!

          It was really by chance that I discovered ‘Curious George’, a novelty shop that sold general items which would greatly interest any individual below the age of 5. It is located right in Harvard Square, along John F. Kennedy Street. ‘Curious George’ was the perfect place that I was looking for. It had everything you can possibly think of getting a baby, toddler, 5 year-old kid, or a 20 year-old college student who acts like a 5 year-old kid.

          My problem didn’t end just there. In the shop, I faced another difficulty: I didn’t know what to get for the kid. I was stumped. I looked around every corner of the shop, hoping to chance upon something that struck me as suitable and meaningful. I was about to make do with a book on nursery rhymes when a storybook suddenly caught my eye. After browsing through a few pages of the book, I made the payment and left ‘Curious George’, clutching ‘The Three Questions’ under my arms, knowing that I had found the perfect gift for my supervisor’s baby.

          ‘The Three Questions’, a children’s storybook written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth, is based on a short story by the same name by the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. If you are interested to see the original work by Tolstoy, here’s a link to a site which features the short story.

          In Tolstoy’s work, a king of a fictitious country searched for the meaning of three of the most important questions in life. He sought the answers from many people and he got various responses. Yet, he was unsatisfied and went out to seek the answers from a hermit. The events that happened thereafter led to the acquisition of the answer, even without the king himself knowing it in the first place.

          In Muth’s adaptation, in place of the king was a boy named Nikolai. Nikolai sought the answers from three of his animal companions, yet as in Tolstoy’s work, none gave him a satisfying answer. The hermit in Muth’s book came in the form of an old turle.

          I’m  not going to go further, since spoilers will not do justice to Tolstoy’s and Muth’s works. Yet suffice to say that I was truly inspired, having read the Muth’s book during my journey in the MBTA subway train from Harvard Square to Longwood Avenue in Boston, so much so that I wrote a short note on the underside of the book’s cover which was meant to be read by my supervisor’s baby after he learns how to read. The note is meant to be a ‘time capsule’, only to be read by the baby when he learns how to read, which should be in a couple of years from now (the book is meant for ages 5-9 years!) and to be understood by him for the rest of his life.

End note: I wish to share the Three Questions mentioned in the book and the answers to them. I found these questions to be very thought-provoking and they struck a deep chord which resonated strongly withing me.

1. When is the best time to do things?

2. Who is the most important one?

3. What is the right thing to do?

Nikolai in Muth’s book pondered upon these questions in his effort to be a good boy. The king in Tolstoy’s work was confident that the answers to these three questions would enable him to not fall in any undertakings.

The answers to these questions, in the words of the hermit, are:

“Remember then: there is only one time that is important— Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

To paraphrase the hermit’s words, the answers are, in the above sequence:

1) NOW is the best time to do things.

2) The person next to us is the right thing to do.

3) To do good to the person next to us is the most important thing to do.

I hope you all find this inspiring. I must end by saying that it’s ironic that a young adult like myself had to learn of this inspirational piece of work from a children’s storybook. Nonetheless, it’s never too late to learn.



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