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Curiosity has been seen through the ages as the impulse that drives our knowledge forward and the temptation that leads us toward dangerous and forbidden waters. The question “Why?” has appeared under a multiplicity of guises and in vastly different contexts throughout the chapters of human history. Why does evil exist? What is beauty? How does language inform us? What defines our identity? What is our responsibility to the world? In Alberto Manguel’s most personal book to date, the author tracks his own life of curiosity through the reading that has mapped his way.
Manguel chooses as his guides a selection of writers who sparked his imagination. He dedicates each chapter to a single thinker, scientist, artist, or other figure who demonstrated in a fresh way how to ask “Why?” Leading us through a full gallery of inquisitives, among them Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Lewis Carroll, Rachel Carson, Socrates, and, most importantly, Dante, Manguel affirms how deeply connected our curiosity is to the readings that most astonish us, and how essential to the soaring of our own imaginations.
different times and in many places. “Books have been useful to me,” he confesses, “less for instruction than as training.”3 That has been precisely my case. Reflecting on Montaigne’s reading habits, for example, it occurred to me that it might be possible to make some notes on his “Que sais-je?” by following Montaigne’s own method of borrowing ideas from his library (he compared himself as a reader to a bee gathering pollen to make his own honey) and projecting these forward into my own time.4
to follow Socrates’ reasoning. Something stronger than faith in logic overcomes Hippias at last, and instead of taking the next fatal step in Socrates’ tortuous argument, he refuses to submit to what he knows not only to be perfidious but what is worse, absurd. “There I cannot agree with you,” says the honest sophist.27 “Nor can I agree with myself,” is Socrates’ surprising answer, “and yet that seems to be the conclusion which, as far as we can see at present, must follow from our argument. As
at which he slaps his thigh, Goes back into the house, and grumbles to and fro, Like a poor fool who knows not what to do. Then he comes out again and hope returns, Observing how the world has changed its face In such short while; so he picks up his staff And chases out his lambs to go and feed. What Are We Doing Here? 161 In passages such as this, Dante is recalling, not Aristotle’s utilitarian view of nature, but Virgil’s, not the lyrical artifice of the Eclogues but the considered
to feel compassion for the damned is “wrong” because it means setting oneself against God’s imponderable will and questioning his justice. Where Is Our Place? 171 Only three cantos earlier, Dante was able to faint with pity when hearing the tale of Francesca, condemned to whirl forever in the wind that punishes the lustful. But now, advanced in his progress through Hell, Dante is less of a sentimentalist and more a believer in the higher authority.10 According to Dante’s faith, the legal
Apparently seeking to define justice, Plato’s dialogue leads farther and farther away from that ineffable goal, and instead of a straight path from question to answer, The Republic proposes a voyage constantly delayed, whose very digressions and pauses grant the reader a mysterious intellectual pleasure. Faced with The Republic’s open questions, what hints of an answer can we offer? If every form of government is somehow nefarious, if no society can boast of being ethically sound and morally