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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I want to know everything. The nature of imaginary numbers, how Saturn-shaped black holes form in the depths of interstellar space, the histories of pueblo Indians, how to solve differential equations, Norse mythology, chaos theory, cytology, how to apply the Second Law of Thermodynamics, about women in the Medieval Ages, how to read music, etymology, the habits of orangutans in the rain forests of Sumatra, how to read Sanskrit, biochemistry, how to determine if a sylogism is correct or incorrect, about illuminated manuscripts, how the first Encyclopedia came to be published. Not least, I want to now why I want to know all these things, what this fire is that burns in my belly and that can be fed only by the pleasure of finding things out, as Richard Feynman puts it, only by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

The down-to-earth, goodie-two-shoes part of my mind immediately raised her skinny finger and warned me: Curiosity killed the cat. Oh, I said. And I went – calmly, I want to say, but it wasn’t calmly but with my insides roiling, partly with shame, partly with indignation – to the bookshelf and pulled out the dictionary of phrase origins. I wanted to know what precisely the phrase meant, and whether its meaning had ever shifted with its use over the centuries. I didn’t find what I was looking for. No surprise there. The scope of that book is very limited. I knew that. But my first instinct when confronted with skepticism or doubt is to reach for a book, both to quiet myself down and to figure out what mistake in thinking I’ve made. Time for plan B, then: I got on the computer and plunged head first into Wikipedia.

First, a bit of etymology. That’s my other instinct when I’m faced with the unknown: to look up the origin of its name. So: curiosity comes from the Old French word curios, which itself comes from the (of course) Latin curiosus, which means careful, and whose root word is cura, care, closer in sense to “cure,” to “take care of,” rather than “worry.” The root word cura turns out to be important, because the first occurrence in print of the expression “curiosity killed the cat” is in a different form: “Care killed the cat.” It was used first by Ben Jonson in a 1598 play: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.” And since we’re talking firsts here, Shakespeare must needs make an appearance too of course: “What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care,” from Much Ado About Nothing, 1599. (I love the spare, balanced structure of this line.) In both these cases, “care” is used in the sense of “worry” or “sorrow.” I find it fascinating that care used in this way turns out to be the predecessor of curiosity. The phrase as we know it, with its didactic, cautionary tone, is attributed to Eugene O’Neill who used it in his play Diff’rent in 1920. (There's a pattern here that I haven't really thought about: the play seems to be the thing.)

There, then, are the facts. What to make of them? For one thing, I think it matters enormously what you’re curious about. It matters if you want to know what your feisty neighbors had their argument about late last night, or if you're curious about why the moon always shows the Earth only one side of its face. At the risk of making too much out of the etymology of the word, I will go so far as to say that it matters what meaning of curiosity you cling to: the “cure” or the “worry.” This makes sense to me because my experience of curiosity is expansiveness, purposefulness and joy, and almost never of danger, of the walls of the world closing in on me. (I feel the latter when I succumb to gossip.)

Curiosity not only hasn't killed this cat – yours truly – but it has given her life. In my darkest hour, the possibility of finding things out, of learning something I didn’t know before, if about nothing else than my own desperation, is the only valid reason that I can discern not to take my life. The question of whether or not life is worth living is a profoundly valid one. It’s not, and shouldn’t be, a luxury to ask it, but a requirement. Camus makes this point in his essays about the absurd. He gives a more complicated answer to it than I am capable of fully comprehending. My version of his answer is that, meaningless or not, life is worth living because of where the desire to know simply for the sake of knowing can take you. That’s a place I want to go.

Diary of Idleness: reading Borges, Labyrinths; Gullberg, Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers; and as usual Vikram Seth. Cooking: kale with tempeh. Listening to: Grieg, Peer Gynt.


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