Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004 to 2021 – Margaret Atwood

Genre: Nonfiction
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Pages: 496
Release Date: March 1, 2022

This brilliant selection of essays—funny, erudite, endlessly curious, uncannily prescient—seeks answers to Burning Questions such as:

• Why do people everywhere, in all cultures, tell stories?
• How much of yourself can you give away without evaporating?
• How can we live on our planet?
• Is it true? And is it fair?
• What do zombies have to do with authoritarianism?

In over fifty pieces Atwood aims her prodigious intellect and impish humor at the world, and reports back to us on what she finds. The roller-coaster period covered in the collection brought an end to the end of history, a financial crash, the rise of Trump and a pandemic. From debt to tech, the climate crisis to freedom, from when to dispense advice to the young (answer: only when asked) and how to define granola, we have no better guide than Atwood to the many and varied mysteries of our universe. 


“Male self-esteem, it seemed, depended on men not being women. All the more necessary that women should be forced to be as “female” as possible, even when – especially when – the male-created definition of “female” included the power to pollute, seduce, and weaken men.”

“Women, it seems, are not a footnote after all: they are the necessary center around which the wheel of power revolves; or, seen another way, they are the broad base of the triangle that sustains a few oligarchs at the top.”

“The old saying – attributed to the abolitionist Wendell Philips – is right: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Burning Questions is really a hodgepodge of Atwood’s writing organized chronologically as she covers a wide variety of topics including climate change, book reviews, homages, and reflections on her past work and life. Since her works are ordered chronologically, it’s easy to pick out the hot button topics of the time. Her works get progressively darker as the years pass and the works have a more recent publishing date.

Some essays were difficult to get through as I wasn’t interested in the topic, while others I wished were longer. Some of my favourite essays/talks were when Atwood went in depth about her previous works. More specifically, her inspirations, the time to complete the novels, feedback she received, etc. These insights into her writing process were fascinating.

Atwood wrote a lot of introductions to novels and reviews that peaked my interest. Namely, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, Alice Munro, Stephen King, The Sea trilogy by Rachel Carson, From Eve to Dawn by Marilyn French, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Atwood’s own book of poetry, Dearly.

It took me much longer than anticipated to read Burning Questions, but that was because reading essay after essay is tiring. Burning Questions is best read slowly in order to fully digest Atwood’s writing.


Have you read Burning Questions? What did you think?

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