The Quest for Knowledge: Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It
by Ian Leslie
Basic Books, 2014 ($26.99)
What is required for a fulfilling life? First, the basics: food, shelter and, because we are social animals, companionship. If we are lucky, maybe we procreate and experience the selflessness of parenthood. What else?
In his new book, writer and adman Leslie focuses on curiosity, the drive to explore and understand, which he believes is an essential but often overlooked criterion for a rewarding life. In recent years we have heard a lot about what is required for success—grit, perseverance and focus, among other traits. Leslie asserts that being curious will incidentally engender these other basic qualities and more.
Leslie begins his exploration by defining three types of curiosity: diversive curiosity, best exemplified by the meandering exploration of the toddler; epistemic curiosity, the drive to understand how things work; and empathic curiosity, the desire to know what other people are thinking and feeling. He then gives us a tour of the science of curiosity. Curious babies make better adolescent students; parents can foster curiosity by asking their children questions; and infants can sense when they are interacting with an “idiot.” For instance, when children receive useless information from adults, their drive to know more wilts.
Like any other skill, curiosity requires cultivation, which, Leslie argues, is happening less and less. Technologies—such as computers and the search engine Google—would seem to open the world to exploration. Yet by giving users exactly what they want, these innovations end up limiting curiosity. In fact, some experts think we live during a period of “great stagnation”—a relative lack of innovation and invention. Technological advances may be paradoxically stifling inquisitiveness and creativity.
Toward the middle, the book arrives at what feels like the point Leslie has been itching to make: there is no getting around the grunt work of acquiring true understanding. He uses chess as an example. Players become masters not because they have learned any universal equation but because they have memorized hundreds of games. Those internalized narratives serve as a reference library, a simulator in which to “play out” the many possible outcomes of a game. The more comprehensive that internal database is, the more capable the player can be.
In other words, old-fashioned memorization is the real basis for skill, creativity and mastery. Because new knowledge sticks to preexisting knowledge, the more you know, the more readily you will learn new things. This point may seem tangential to curiosity. But Leslie contends that if people follow their drive to understand, they will incidentally absorb immense amounts of information and acquire the large memory banks that allow for creativity and expertise. As Leslie puts it, “Skills come from struggle.”
Here the book mounts a defense of an old ideal: the well-rounded individual with a basic education. Leslie agitates for the importance of breadth while encouraging enough depth for people to excel at something. Curiosity is key—it is what drives and shapes our intellect.
Leslie's book is engaging, moving fluidly from one idea to the next. He provides a refreshingly commonsensical voice in the ongoing argument over how to best mold human minds. Readers may come away with a renewed appreciation for their own drive to know more because curiosity often emerges as an urge that has no immediate payoff—the deceptively simple, open-ended question, Why?