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.