TLM09: HAVE YOU SEEN MY BOOK? – AN ESSAY ON CURIOSITY
I have been looking everywhere for a book I stole last year and can’t seem to find it. This may be a karmic consequence of having stolen it to begin with—of having stolen it from the library with only the best intention, researching human desire. I checked out Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry, Barbara M. Benedict’s take on 17th- to 19th-century inquisition(1) as a reference for a project I was working on at the time. I paid handsomely in the end—in library fees—because I wanted to know what the book had to say and couldn’t seem to get around to finishing it.(2) And now it’s missing, the last relic of months living on the fourth floor in the stacks at that uptown library with smuggled-in snacks and no Internet.
Did I lend it to a friend?(3) Not likely, if only because an academic history doesn’t usually have a lot of takers. Did I leave it somewhere?(4) I once found a copy of Paul Valéry’s Reflections on the World Today in the aftermath of a party at my apartment. I thought I could fall in love with the guy who takes Valéry to a Soho house party.(5) Did I cause a similar spark in someone else? Did he find it and think, Who was this girl?(6) Or maybe the guy who left Valéry stole Curiosity from me.
I remember—or the Internet(7) tells me—that Benedict’s book explores why a cultural distaste developed for the curious who cross the line, the ambitious, prodding citizens and scientists who threaten to destabilize what we know.(8) Amazon.com gives insight into the character or taste of the potential criminal book thief extraordinaire. He may have been tempted also by any assortment of Brit Lit anthologies, Caleb Williams by William Godwin, Francis Bacon, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the DVD of Edison the Man starring Spencer Tracy. Light bulbs, monsters, and the scientific method intrigue him, which aren’t bad assumptions, though not all that sexy either. So why bother to wonder when the book’s probably under my bed or in a pile of clothing? Why do I even want to know?
I always want to know.(9) It’s half compassion, half discontent. Because I can imagine a circumstance and a story, I can always place myself somewhere else. The very need to go there means a lack of fulfillment. If we knew—really knew, crystal ball-knew—would we go there at all? Would we meet strangers and wonder about unexplained sexual energy or read books and watch films to imagine what we would do if we found ourselves within them? Why care about made-up stories at all, if the answers are in already-written biographies?
My curiosity gets me in trouble. I talk to these strangers and I trust them, believing in the power of connection and circumstance. Common(10) sense sounds like a boring quality to me. I push too far trying to find what’s next—sometimes too soon—or hidden meanings where none exist. And for this reason my curiosity also sustains me. Why are you never happy? Why is it never enough?(11) I can’t give up the promise of what else there may be.
I want to know.
Oh, let me know if you find my book.
(1) Act of inquiry, not persecution of heresy.
(2) Ironic. That’s all.
(3) /frend/ noun: open to interpretation based on depth of inquisitor
(4) Anywhere I went in the course of a long night.
(5) Everyone else just brought cheap wine.
(6) The reaction of the naturally curious, perhaps a small percentage in this circumstantial case study.
(7) Google = last frontier of a certain kind of unfulfilled curiosity.
(8) “His sudden mad love for Sibyl Vane was a psychological phenomenon of no small interest. There was no doubt that curiosity had much to do with it, curiosity and the desire for new experiences; yet it was not a simple but rather a very complex passion.” —Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
(9) A character trait that’s the opposite of cool contentment with the world and its mysteries or promise.
(10) /’kä-men/ adjective: normal
(11) Sorry, I ask too many questions.
Stephanie LaCava’s An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris is out Tuesday from Harper.