Like buds on a plant, we begin to open ourselves through curiosity.
“Seek knowledge for its own ends.” . . . By allowing himself to be driven by pure curiosity, he got to explore more horizons and see more connections than anyone else of his era. [Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci, (Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 520.]
“I have no special talents. I am just passionately curious.” [Albert Einstein]
Curiosity: the act of leaning forward, motivated by wonder.
Helen is learning adjectives and adverbs as easily as she learned nouns. The idea always precedes the word. She had signs for small and large long before I came to her. If she wanted a small object and was given a large one, she would shake her head and take up a tiny bit of the skin of one hand between the thumb and finger of the other. If she wanted to indicate something large, she spread the fingers of both hands as wide as she could, and brought them together, as if to clasp a big ball. The other day I substituted the words small and large for these signs, and she at once adopted the words and discarded the signs. I can now tell her to bring me a large book or a small plate, to go upstairs slowly, to run fast and to walk quickly. This morning she used the conjunction and for the first time. I told her to shut the door, and she added, "and lock." She came tearing upstairs a few minutes ago in a state of great excitement. I couldn't make out at first what it was all about. She kept spelling "dog–baby" and pointing to her five fingers one after another, and sucking them. My first thought was, one of the dogs has hurt Mildred; but Helen's beaming face set my fears at rest. Nothing would do but I must go somewhere with her to see something. She led the way to the pump-house, and there in the corner was one of the setters with five dear little pups! I taught her the word "puppy" and drew her hand over them all, while they sucked, and spelled "puppies." She was much interested in the feeding process, and spelled "mother-dog" and "baby" several times. Helen noticed that the puppies' eyes were closed, and she said, "Eyes–shut. Sleep–no," meaning, "The eyes are shut, but the puppies are not asleep." She screamed with glee when the little things squealed and squirmed in their efforts to get back to their mother, and spelled, "Baby–eat large." I suppose her idea was "Baby eats much." She pointed to each puppy, one after another, and to her five fingers, and I taught her the word five. Then she held up one finger and said "baby." I knew she was thinking of Mildred, and I spelled, "One baby and five puppies." After she had played with them a little while, the thought occurred to her that the puppies must have special names, like people, and she asked for the name of each pup. I told her to ask her father, and she said, "No–mother." She evidently thought mothers were more likely to know about babies of all sorts. She noticed that one of the puppies was much smaller than the others, and she spelled "small," making the sign at the same time, and I said "very small." She evidently understood that very was the name of the new thing that had come into her head; for all the way back to the house she used the word very correctly. One stone was "small," another was "very small." When she touched her little sister, she said: "Baby–small. Puppy–very small." Soon after, she began to vary her steps from large to small, and little mincing steps were "very small." She is going through the house now, applying the new words to all kinds of objects. Since I have abandoned the idea of regular lessons, I find that Helen learns much faster. I am convinced that the time spent by the teacher in digging out of the child what she has put into him, for the sake of satisfying herself that it has taken root, is so much time thrown away. It's much better, I think, to assume that the child is doing his part, and that the seed you have sown will bear fruit in due time. It's only fair to the child, anyhow, and it saves you much unnecessary trouble. [Annie Sullivan, Letters, May 8, 1887.]
- Amir D. Aczel, Descartes’ Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe (Broadway, 2005).
- Stephen Budiansky, Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021): “From the age of 4, Gödel was known as ‘Herr Warum,’ or ‘Mr. Why.’ He would later tell a psychiatrist that he was “’lways curious, questioning authority, requiring reasons.’ He experienced this as a delight, not a burden: ‘The highest aim of my life (conceived in puberty) is pleasure of cognition.'”
- Elisabeth Eaves, Wanderlust: A Love Affair With Five Continents (Seal Press, 2011): a biographical account of “the perpetual desire to move”.
- John Breton Connelly, The Parthenon Enigma: A New Understanding of the World’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014): an inquiry into the origins and construction of a classic Greek structure, the book is “the exposition of a truly great idea, and a reminder of what a thrilling subject the past, that foreign country, can be.”
- Wendy Lesser, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014): “A literary work must be able to turn the quotidian into something strange.”
- Edward Dolnick, The Seeds of Life: From Aristotle to da Vinci, From Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From (Basic Books, 2017). The discovery took place in an instant, from observing a sea urchin.
- Simon Barnes, The Meaning of Birds (Pegasus, 2018): “ . . . a book of essays that explore the biology of birds and our abiding fascination with them.”
- Bernd Brunner, Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds (Greystone, 2018): “ . . . a cultural history of the varieties of human ornithological obsession.”
- Noah Strycker, Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest and the Biggest Year in the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2018): “ . . . a firsthand account of a serious case of birdmania”
- Karen Olsson, The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019): “Olsson is evocative on curiosity as an appetite of the mind, on the pleasure of glutting oneself on knowledge.”
- Jeff Sharlet, This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers (Norton, 2020): “Sharlet takes us to pockets of the world most of us will never see or bother to notice, and he has an unusual ability to find grace in everyone’s story, training his eye on those whom the rest of us avoid, either out of fear or a lack of curiosity.”
- Toby Wilkinson, A World Beeath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology (W.W. Norton, 2020): “Wilkinson’s ambitious focus is the hundred years of Egyptology between Jean-Francois Champollion’s groundbreaking deciphering of the Rosetta stone in 1822 and Howard Carter’s sensational discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922.”
- Tom Vanderbilt, Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (Knopf, 2021): “. . . a Writer Takes Up Chess and Surfing and Singing and Juggling and …”
- Ellen McGarrahan, Two Truths and a Lie: A Murder, a Private Inveestigator, and Her Search for Justice (Random House): “McGarrahan’s obsession with rooting out the truth in the case leads her (and her unfailingly loyal husband) to Florida, Ireland and Australia, where she tracks down any detail that might potentially help her know what happened.”
- Philip Hoare, Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World (Pegasus, 2021): “His biographical sections are both elliptical and redolent of entire lives.” The book is about how this Renaissance-era artist’s curiosity led him to imagine animals’ characteristics, then paint them.
- Martin Edwards, The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators (Collins Crime Club, 2022): “We read these stories as a form of entertainment and escapism, to match wits with a fictional detective, to enjoy the resolution of uncertainty or deliverance of justice not always afforded by the real world, to be shocked and exhilarated, but also ‘as a tool of recognition, a means of solving the puzzles of human nature, of understanding who we are.'”
- Darryl Pinckney, Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022): “The memoir braids together Pinckney’s memories of (Elizabeth) Hardwick and her circle of New York intellectuals with his own coming-of-age story.”
The tawdry side of curiosity:
- Bill James, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (Scribner, 2011).
Documentary and Educational Films
Gerard ter Borch, Curiosity (1660)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Imed Alibi is “a Tunisian percussionist with a curious mind”. To his native Tunisian sounds, his albums add jazz, Brazilian and Indian rhythms, bagpipes and synthesizer blasts.
Though he was an excellent Baroque-era composer, with a remarkably unique compositional point of view, Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) composed simple music that suggests a rudimentary stage of development. A hint of excitement, coupled with an obvious native intelligence, characterizes his works, including these 6 trio sonatas., ZWV 181 (1720-1722) (approx. 94-110’). “These pieces are like concerti grossi in miniature form, each its own massive universe compacted into a rather demanding form of chamber music. . . Not since Bach had a composer taken the raw material of counterpoint and fashioned it into something beyond its own means.” The six sonatas “frequently use Bohemian folk rhythms, are complex, and are often very aggressive with large dynamic leaps and technically challenging–to say nothing of the unusual instrument soloist combination of two oboes (oboe and violin in No. 4) and bassoon with bass accompaniment.” The full set has been recorded by Camerata Bern in 1972, Paul Dombrecht, et. al., in 1998, Ensemble Zefiro in 2016, Collegium 1704 in 2017, and Ensemble Berlin Prag in 2018. Individually, they are:
- No. 1 in F Major for 2 Oboes, Bassoon and Basso Continuo (approx. 16-17’)
- No. 2 in G minor (approx. 19-20’)
- No. 3 in B-flat Major for Violin, Oboe, Bassoon and Basso Continuo (approx. 15-17’)
- No. 4 in G minor (approx. 19-21’)
- No. 5 in F major for 2 Oboes, Bassoon and Basso Continuo (approx. 16-18’)
- No. 6 in C minor for 2 Oboes, Bassoon & Basso Continuo (approx. 15-16’)
- Kimmo Hakola, Clarinet Quintet (1998) (approx. 42’): “I wonder what that clarinet is up to and where she’s going,” say the strings. “Let’s chase after her and find out.”
- Nicolas Flagello, Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet (1985) (approx. 20-23’): the work evokes a struggle against death, but is also “an integrated symphonic structure in which the saxophone quartet serves as the voice of a hypothetical protagonist.”
- Morton Gould, Fall River Legend (1947) (approx. 60-75’): The central character, Lizzie Borden, is curious about what happened and why. Here is the ballet on video.
- Elisabeth Lutyens, Seven Preludes for Piano, Op. 126 (1978) (approx. 20’), “influenced by the cosmos and weather phenomena”. “. . . each piece vividly evokes the links to Keats referenced in the titles . . .”
- Lutyens, Five Impromptus, Op. 116 (1977) (approx. 10’) “is the musical equivalent of the fiery taste of an excellent single malt whiskey – pure, uncompromising, but heady and intoxicating.”
- Kali Trio, “Riot” (2018) (51’) “is a collection of heavy minimal grooves, dark rhythmic spaces, and extemporaneous journeys with mystical sensibility drawn from progressive elements”. The recording practically asks, “what is this?”
- Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas’ Soundprints, “Other Worlds” (2021) (70’): “As the album and track titles suggest, there is an underlying theme of space exploration . . . The music can sound a bit complex on the surface but it has energy and a contagious spirit of fun. At heart, these are five excellent musicians creating music which combines familiar elements and exploratory freedom.”
- Jacob Cooper, “Silver Threads” (2014) (49’): the music engenders curiosity. What is this music about?
- NakedEye Ensemble, “A Series of Indecipherable Glyphs” (2022) (68’), presents curious works, which may stimulate your curiosity. One reviewer writes: “If Boulez could be inspired by Zappa, who was originally inspired by Varese, why can’t the circle come full circle and have this award winning nu new classical crew be inspired by Zappa and other rockers.”
You have been a child, reader, and you would, perhaps, be very happy to be one still. It is quite certain that you have not, more than once (and for my part, I have passed whole days, the best employed of my life, at it) followed from thicket to thicket, by the side of running water, on a sunny day, a beautiful green or blue dragon-fly, breaking its flight in abrupt angles, and kissing the tips of all the branches. You recollect with what amorous curiosity your thought and your gaze were riveted upon this little whirlwind, hissing and humming with wings of purple and azure, in the midst of which floated an imperceptible body, veiled by the very rapidity of its movement. [Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Volume I, Book Second, Chapter VII, “A Bridal Night”.]
- Ian McGuire, The North Water: A Novel (Henry Holt & Company, 2016): “The central characters are all men. The novel begins with the most vicious and unpleasant of them, Henry Drax. As he wanders the town on the night before the Volunteer sets sail, he visits a brothel, tries to get free drinks in a bar, and eventually rapes and murders a young boy. He is presented as a man with no history, just all appetite. We are not burdened with how he thinks or what his worries are or his plans. We merely see what he does.” (The curiosity is about the two men.)
- Kate Tallo, Poison Lilies: A Novel (Harper, 2022): “Gus knows she shouldn’t get involved in this murder investigation, but she can’t help herself; in some ways she’s more attracted to danger than friendship, romance or even self-preservation.”
Great mystery novels:
- Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon: A Novel (1930).
- Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951).
- Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987).
- John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1964).
- Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939).
- Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953).
- Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1937).
- Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None (1915/1939).
- Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).
- Agatha Christie, Murder On the Orient Express (1934).
- Agatha Christie, “Witness for the Prosecution” (short story) (1925). (play manuscript)
- Robert Traver, Anatomy of a Murder (1958).
- James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934).
- Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs (St. Martin’s Press, 1988).
- Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal (1967).
- John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).
- Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1860).
- Suzanne Berne, A Crime in the Neighborhood (1997).
- Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939).
- John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions (1977).
- Mark Behm, The Eye of the Beholder (1980).
- Scott Smith, A Simple Plan (1993).
- Thomas Berger, Sneaky People (1975).
- Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955).
- Newton Thornburg, Cutter and Bone (1976).
- Upton Sinclair, Dragon’s Teeth (1942).
- Ann Arensberg, Sister Wolf: A Novel (1980).
- Stuart M. Kaminsky, A Cold Red Sunrise (1988).
- Stanley Elllin, The Eighth Circle (1958).
- Dennis Lehane, Mystic River (2001).
- Megan Abbott, Queenpin: A Novel (2007).
- Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch: A Novel (2013).
- Yukito Ayatsuji, The Decagon House Murders: A Novel (1987; translated in Pushkin, 2021): the collective curiosity of the characters is their undoing.
- Stephen Spotswood, Murder Under Her Skin: A Pentecost and Parker Mystery (Doubleday, 2021): “It’s a pleasure to watch them arrive at that knowledge after sifting through red herrings and peeling secrets back like layers of an onion, all while revealing even more of themselves without guilt or shame.”
- A list of 100 top mystery novels.
Film and Stage
Top mystery and detective films:
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
- The Witness for the Prosecution (2016)
- Murder On the Orient Express (1974)
- The Maltese Falcon (1941)
- The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)
- The Big Sleep (1946)
- The Long Goodbye (1973)
- Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
- The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), (1981)
- The Day of the Jackal (1973)
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
- The Third Man (1949)
- Laura (1941)
- Argo (2012)
- Rebecca (1940)
- The Night of the Hunter (1955)
- M (1931)
- Alfred Hitchcock carved his own niche as a mystery filmmaker. See a list of Hitchcock films on the “Involvement” page.
- A list of 100 top-reviewed mystery and suspense films