Hmmm…just curious: new in bookstores

curiosity cesare ripa

MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!: Unfriendly figure of Curiosity, from Cesare Ripa’s popular book of emblems, Iconologia, published in 1593

Philip Ball is a writer to be envied — he’s a non-affiliated academic who ranges far and wide wherever his curiosity takes him.

In the case of his new book, curiosity holds up a mirror to itself — and to all of Western civilization. With Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (University of Chicago Press), Ball shows the long, difficult road that science has taken in order to be allowed to ask every and any question about the natural world.

The book balances on two questions which he asks  early in the book:

“[I]n the wider world mightn’t there be something ill-disciplined, even improper, about a voracious curiosity that permits nothing to be too trivial or obscure?”

“Was there after all something in the old accusation that it is weak-willed to succumb to the wiles of curiosity?”

The answer, too, is given early: “[T]he problem of our times — and also its great good fortune — is that temptation is everywhere.”

The remainder of the book is a delicious expansion on this point. Long before the Hubble Telescope or the Mars rovers, there were multitudes of truth-seekers who risked punishment and Pandora-like warnings in order to ask the simple question, “Why?” (Cesare Ripa’s emblem for the personification of Curiosity, above, gives us an unfriendly-looking figure who’s deeply in need of a comb.)

Ball’s non-affiliation with any academic institution (according to his website, he did serve as an editor at Nature for many years) clearly shows, and that isn’t a bad thing. He’s spent enough time working to earn a living that he knows you don’t serve yourself or your audience by writing something that’s inaccessible.

When, for instance, he describes  a century’s worth of evolving attitudes to curiosity, he manages to pull it off in a single, deftly-written sentence: “The turning point in Western attitudes to curiosity occurred in the seventeenth century, which began with an essentially medieval outlook and ended looking like the first draft of the modern age.”

If that’s all you learn about how the 17th century changed, it’s more than enough. Hits the nail right on the head.

Ball is an exhilarating treat to read, either in this new book or in his others (“Universe of Stone,” about Chartres Cathedral, is a personal favorite). Let your curiosity be your guide, and don’t worry about it: As Ball reminds us, humanity’s earned that right.

10 responses

  1. I studied Philosophy at school – never graduated – and one of the things I loved about it was how it was such a wide-ranging discipline. It seems like every time I thought I had found something philosophers had failed to study I would run into a book called Philosophy of X or a journal titled Philosophical Studies in Y or a professional association International Society for the Philosophy of Z. It definitely was an environment where letting your curiosity lead you was encouraged. (Well, most of the time. Or, I should say, “At it’s best it was an environment where…”)

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Philosophy gets caricatured as this weird, abstract field instead of what Philip Ball and others demonstrate about it: It’s so rich and amazing. It’s not always that way, I agree, but it’s pretty cool when it is. Were you more into the classical study of philosophy, or an existentialist, or something else?

  3. When I first started I wanted to do existentialist stuff – Nietzsche, Sartre, etc… But most of the “cool kids” were doing contemporary anglo-american analytic philosophy. So, I dug into that. By the end, I found myself interested in studying the history of philosophy with an emphasis on Spinoza, Simone Weil and Wittgenstein. But then I dropped out and went into database programming, but that’s a whole different story!

    One book I saw in the library and kept thinking – I should check that book out – was The Philosophy of the Occult. I have no idea why I let myself leave that school without ever having tried to read that.

    Of course, memory may be playing tricks on me. Perhaps the volume would not seem as interesting to me today as it did then. I may have to do an amazon.com search for that puppy.

  4. I think I need to find that book too. It’s just the sort of thing for Call of the Siren. I hope amazon has at least two on stock or else it’s going to be a race between us!

  5. It would be a long time before I got around to reading it, so you feel free – if you can find it! I did a quick amazon search and the results were disappointing – at least in terms of finding the book I originally saw. There were a few interesting volumes that I might at least read the reviews of. Could be better than the book I remember, yes?

    This one looks especially interesting and is available on the kindle:
    http://www.amazon.com/Dust-This-Planet-Philosophy-ebook/dp/B005BRJWCO/ref=sr_1_108?ie=UTF8&qid=1368211131&sr=8-108&keywords=philosophy+of+the+occult

    But, of course, I have a particular interest in horror.

    Anyway, I did finally write a bit more about e-publishing:
    http://erickeys.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/epublishing-lthm-goals-and-so-on/

  6. Not exactly a recommendation so much as a noticing. It looks good and I’m going to try and read it. Can’t say it’s good or not.

    Thanks for checking out the link! Let me know what you think.

  7. Here I am, bringing the tone right down! What about Bill Bryson, hey? He gets a few books out on almost anything…in fact, wasn’t one of his most popular works called: ‘A brief history of almost anything?’ (or similar?)
    Just a thought, you know, from a not too serious book reviewer….you can always trash comments, can’t you?….will you?…oh dear!

  8. Ah Bryson’s a good one. I forgot about him. Another of those writers who seem capable of writing about anything! (why would I ever want to trash comments? Your feedback is great. thank you!)

  9. Too kind, thank you. Confession time: I actually never read Bryson’s books – I listened to them as audio books when commuting a few years ago by car. Whilst the content is the same, it’s an altogether different experience. The reader makes or breaks the enjoyment. I had to stop listening to the Tony Parson’s easy reads because of the drooling tone of voice…or was it too many speech defects?
    Till later,
    ofglassandbooks

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