DRMacIver's Notebook

I’m not actually that curious

I’m not actually that curious

Small personal note, but I’ve noticed a number of people have a particular misconception of me, and thought I’d clear it up.

You know how I read insatiably, driven by pure curiosity, and know a huge amount of different things just because I wanted to know them?

Yeah, I don’t do that.

At least, I don’t do that often. It’s a thing I do sometimes, but an idle scan of my bookshelves suggests that no more than about one book in twenty is something I’ve read out of pure interest. Generally speaking if I’m reading something nonfiction it’s because I expect it will actually improve my life in some material way.

I’d like this to not be the case: It would be wonderful if I could just read things because I thought they were interesting, but I actually find it very difficult to be interested in knowledge that I can’t use in some way to solve practical problems. I suspect that will improve as the ongoing project to improve my emotional landscape progresses, but I’m very much not there yet.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the books I read are super interesting in their own right, and I do appreciate that aspect of them. I also don’t do well at reading boring books. But I don’t select books because they’re interesting, I select books because they’ll help me with something. The emotion that most commonly drives me to read a book isn’t curiosity, it’s distress: Something is bad, and my stress response is to understand more about the subject matter so I can make it better, so I read a book about it.

It’s not always distress. Sometimes it’s because I’m annoyed that something doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it’s a simple desire for improvement, or some really concrete problem to solve. Sometimes it’s just a general background faith that even if I don’t have a specific problem I’m trying to solve then the book will be good for something.

This might seem odd given my reading material (“David, what are you reading?” “I’m reading a Christian theology book about how giving yourself over to Christ will solve capitalism.” “Of course you are.”) but what you have to bear in mind is that I am a deeply unreasonable person with a very idiosyncratic approach to knowledge.

If you read my notes towards a manifesto, a lot of what I’m working on is “general humaning skills”. What field do you need to read in in order to figure out how to do humaning better? Basically all of them I’m afraid.

When I say All knowledge is connected I think most people nod sagely and agree that this is true in principle, and you do get people reading out their field a bit (e.g. Software developers reading architecture books is a thing, though mostly because books about software development are mostly terrible, and every field has a subculture of people telling you that you need to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to truly understand it). But I don’t think, by and large, people fully embrace it as a praxis, mostly because it’s really hard and time consuming.

I have three advantages here:

  1. I take the idea seriously and am willing to put in the work.
  2. I don’t find it that hard. I’m good at reading books, I’m good at connecting up knowledge, and I generally prefer hitting practical problems with huge theory hammers.
  3. I have a relatively large amount of time to devote to the problem, especially on days when I’m failing to work on my PhD.

The result is that yes I just really am the sort of person who goes “Community drama seems like a really hard problem. Why don’t I read a text on Talmudic law so I can understand it better?” and have a project to learn phenomenology so I can improve my own subjective emotional experience.

Does this work?

Honestly, yes. I cannot say that I recommend it to everyone, or even to most people, but I’ve found it extraordinarily helpful. It’s not sufficient in its own right, but I’ve been taking this seriously for a few years and really kicked it into high gear this year with the addition of the writing practice to properly integrate this knowledge, and I’ve seen huge improvements in my life enabled by it.

I expect I’ll keep reading like this for at least another couple of years - with any luck I’ll gradually include a higher fraction of pure interest reading as time goes on, but I doubt I’m at any risk of solving all my problems any time soon.

I can’t read everything relevant to my problems of course. I’m not trying to. What I’m trying to do is cultivate a domus that gives me a sufficient wealth of ideas to get me unstuck on making progress with the problems I have.

(A domus is a concept I got from reading about the early history of civilisation and the role of grain cultivation - James C. Scott is an author I tend to just read because I assume I’ll get something useful out of it even if I don’t know what going in. Haven’t been wrong yet)

When I encounter a limitation, I read new material to overcome it. Because the category of problems I am trying to solve is, in the limit, all of human endeavour, there’s no shortage of limitations. The result is a constant switching around of what I’m working on based on what I can currently make progress on, and reading whatever seems most currently accessible and relevant to the bits I’m actively stuck on. This tends to cause me to bounce around a lot between different fields, because once I’ve read a book (or a couple books sometimes) about a subject I need a while to let it bed in and try applying it and integrating it before I’m ready to read more in that area.

From the outside this process does looks a lot like curiosity, but as a David expert I’m here to tell you that this isn’t cute, and Davids only behave this way when they’re under stress.