Book Review: “Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It”

“Pure curiosity is unique to human beings. It’s only people, as far as we know, who look up at the stars and wonder what they are.”

Filled with facts, colorful stories and anecdotes from personal experience and research studies. A thought-provoking page-turner that can help you discover the curious nature of mankind and something about yourself. The book includes references to academic studies but the intended audience is the non-academic, the layperson. So perhaps it would be nothing new to the academic but that is not who I would recommend this book to. 

Sure to raise your curiosity for curiosity!

The book is aptly titled “Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It”. It dives deep into the subject of curiosity in three parts (other than the introduction): how curiosity works, the curiosity divide and staying curious.

The cover of the copy of the book that I read had a photo of a curious looking owl. It proves to be attention-grabbing and will definitely compel you to pick up the book out of curiosity if you glimpsed it passing by a bookstore or library shelf. I mean who doesn’t absolutely adore owls?

It is written by Ian Leslie (website), a London-based journalist who writes on psychology, social trends and politics.  He recalls in the introduction to the book,

“Being epistemically curious seemed like a natural way of life. As I grew older, I came to think of it as a crucial condition of feeling fulfilled and alive.”

This recollection of the author gives me the impression that the subject of the book is close at heart to the author and to this I can relate. It was easier to dive into the book knowing that it was a passion project of the author.

The book delivers on what it means to be curious, and why our future depends on the desire to know. It reads effortlessly and it has an uplifting style of writing, packed with inspiring and colourful anecdotes and stories about inspiring people and achievements. The writing is clear and concise in addition to being colorful. There are instances of ambiguity and lack of precision of word usage, however.

Curiosity in a new light.

girl facing a bull

Definitely for people who take their curious nature for granted. I certainly have. Proud and appreciative of it, happy that it drives me forward and yet overlooking its depth, its causes, its drives.

The best thing about this book is that it makes you understand and appreciate this concept in a whole new light. And perhaps compels you to dig further into your own curious personality. It does this by using a style that attaches romance to the concept of curiosity by presenting research studies and facts with stories and anecdotes.

Understanding the ideas in this book is actually helping me become more focused and prioritize more, keeping the more devilish, temptation kind of curiosity in check while fully owning and reveling in the deep-dive kind of curiosity.

So anyone who would like to understand and hone this powerful behavior driving force, curiosity, and use it more consciously or actively rather than passively would get value out of this book.

The author has referenced lots of other works in the book, presented concisely at the end of the book in the form of notes on each chapter.  This is a bonus for those interested in reading further on the subject.

If this is the first time you have picked up a book on this subject, you could love this book as a concise introduction to concepts using colorful illustrations and anecdotes and as a resource with its ample references for further reading. This is what makes this book so accessible and entertaining to read.

If you are an academic having already read extensively on the subject, you might find it less inspiring, entertaining or original. Then you might want to continue with sources such as academic articles unless you want to appreciate the style of the book even though you already have the knowledge presented in the book.

I do have quibbles with the book in a few instances, on word precision and integration of the subject matter to the wider sweeping theme.

There are a couple of ideas and technical definitions and details that I disagree with but overall, I love this book and it is definitely a thought-provoking page-turner that can help you discover something about the curious nature of mankind and perhaps something about yourself.

Highlights

Let’s look at some of the highlights of the book, some of my favorites and least favorites.

As I started reading this book, what I loved most about it were its stories or anecdotes. The style of telling stories to illustrate a point is one of my favorite things.

It starts off with a story about Kanzi the intelligent ape, who was a prodigy, who loved to play and to learn, who learned more than two hundred words and used the keyboard with specific symbols to make requests for food or games or to announce what he was about to do. But Kanzi never asked why, never showed curiosity.

He never furrows his brow, leans over the keyboard and bashes out a sentence like “Why are you asking me all these questions”.

Bonobo_Kanzi
By William H. Calvin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

This story tells us that one of the differences between an ape and a human is that we have the capacity to have curiosity, the fourth drive, as the author classifies it.

Pure curiosity is unique to human beings. When animals snuffle around in bushes, it’s because they’re looking for three other things [three basic drives: food, sex and shelter]. It’s  only people, as far as we know, who look up at the stars and wonder what they are.

Of course, I consider the difference between an ape and a human to be rooted in the much more fundamental difference between animals and humans.

Only humans, the only sentient beings we are aware of, have the capacity to think rationally, to be conceptual. Hence, to be curious.

But my disagreement with this idea does not actually distract from the essence of the entire introduction. The purpose of the introduction is to raise the reader to wonder in curiosity and it definitely succeeds in this regard.

The introduction goes on to colorfully illustrate other stories. For instance, it talks about John Lloyd, the TV producer who hit bottom only to discover a passion for books, reading and knowledge in general. He consequently went on to discover or perhaps rediscover curiosity, leading to his greatest success yet.

It also reminds us that our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings – Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge, Icarus and the sun, Pandora’s box, Early Christian theologians claiming that,

God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.

Pandora's box
By John William Waterhouse

In this way, it mentions the trends in the history of embracing curiosity as virtue versus stamping on it as vice. And for me, it succeeds in provoking thoughts and emotions regarding the injustices of society on individuals, by treating a wonderful trait of humans as sin.

The introductory chapter has a fitting conclusion – a burning question for the readers to think about, a choice to make.

Beyond the age of information,” said designer Charles Eames, “is the age of choices.” Isn’t it time to reassess your relationship with what Aristotle called ”the desire to know” — to choose curiosity?

In a few pages, the book had already grabbed my attention, compelled me to admire my own curiosity, inspired me to be more curious and stirred me to the fact that it is a virtue that has always been for most of history suppressed by society and that we should all be more actively choosing to be more curious and questioning.

This book does indeed have a very compelling introductory chapter that will hook you in and keep you turning the pages with curiosity.

Another one of my favorite accounts is given in the following chapter on how curiosity begins. We find a delightful account of studies of and hypotheses about babies and children and their curiosity. We get hypothesized explanations of their babbling, pointing and questioning behaviours. Furthermore, we get an insight on how curiosity depends on not only intelligence but a feedback loop between child and adult and how it can flourish or atrophy under different conditions.

Children are scientists, experimenting on their physical world, but they are also investigative reporters, pumping their sources for secrets.

Examples of lack of clarity and word precision.

If I am strict, there are a few places that the book lacks in word precision that lends to ambiguity and perhaps misunderstanding and disagreement on my part.

Such as when he says, “We should all feel privileged to have access to a deep well of species memory.”, I gather he means the accumulated knowledge of our species that we have access to, stored or communicated orally through the ages. Not that we as a species pass on our memories to the next generation? I hope he is not saying the latter as if we are like the fictional Gou’ld species of Stargate and their DNA memory.

And there are a few other examples of this I have pointed out below as I analyse the chapters in more depth.

The first part of the book discusses definitions and beginnings as well as the relationship of curiosity to evolution and culture and to puzzles and mysteries.

I also found frustrating that the definition of “epistemic curiosity” was not stated explicitly in the format “Epistemic curiosity is…” I can deduce from his descriptions and explanations but I am left to wonder — is this what he wanted me to conclude the definition is? 

It is a great approach to make the reader think and come to his own conclusions but I prefer that at some point the author’s own definition is stated clearly and directly.

Overall

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to the curious amongst us. For me the highlight of the book were the many delightful anecdotes about the curious nature of humans.

Speaking of curiosity, check out my short story on this subject, “Pandora”. You can grab it for free.

Would you open Pandora’s box?

Eerie voices fill Amelia’s head as an archaeological dig in Athens unearths a sinister entity contained within a box. She must open the box to preserve her sanity. But at what cost?

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