Curious By Ian Leslie - book review
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 04 May 2014
I thought I’d like it. Ian Leslie is an exceptional writer. I discovered him when he wrote a blog, mostly on British and American politics, called Marbury. I enjoyed his previous book, Born Liars, about why people lie. His thoughts on turning 42 and having a baby, published recently in The Independent, made me cry.
So what could be better than this? A book about curiosity: the psychology of it, what stimulates it and what satisfies it. It could easily have been a dry collection of the accounts of experiments with chimpanzees and humans – chimpanzees can be curious but they are never interested in “why?” Instead it is a lovely, erudite exploration of what it is that makes us human.
Leslie starts with story-telling. Good stories start with an information gap, an anomaly such as the clocks striking 13 or a murder, that the reader wants to fill. Our desire to know what happened next can pull us through a novel or a film even if we don’t think it’s very good.
Sometimes in the book, Leslie talks such good sense that he makes you realise what an idiot you have been all these years. He takes on the absurd idea that schools should teach “thinking skills” instead of “knowledge”, and illustrates it with a great experiment carried out in 1946. Show people a chess board, with the pieces arranged as if a game is under way, and then ask them to replace the pieces from memory. Grandmasters and experienced players did much better than novices – because they have thousands of positions and kinds of positions stored in their memories already. They can “see” most of the board without having to memorise each piece and its place. Chess seems like a game of pure abstract reasoning, but being good at it depends on knowledge. As Leslie says: “Knowledge makes you smarter. People who know more about a subject have a kind of X-ray vision; they can zero in on a problem’s underlying fundamentals, rather than using up their brain’s processing power on getting to grips with the information in which the problem comes wrapped.”
This leads to a fascinating discussion of whether the internet makes us more or less intelligent, by making it too easy to find facts and taking away the “productive frustration” of having to learn them. But I shall leave your curiosity about how Leslie answers that question unsatisfied for the moment.
I thought I’d like this book. I did. I think you would too.
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 2 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 3 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 Fearne Cotton quits Radio 1 after ten years for 'family and new adventures'
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Blade Runner sequel: Harrison Ford confirmed to return with Denis Villeneuve directing
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
House of Cards season 3 premiere, review: Has Frank Underwood gone soft?
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East