photo by Janko FerličFrom time to time readers ask us to open up the hood of Culture Briefing and address some questions about how it’s produced. Frequently, these questions are not merely tactical — how we select pieces to highlight, how we write introductions, etc. Most often, they push us to articulate our animating interests, some account of what Harry Frankfurt has called the importance of what we care about.

Given the wide range of topics we take up, this makes perfect sense. Throughout our tenure we’ve done our best to show how seemingly unrelated trends are in fact tied together, how the week’s events are swept up in cultural currents with long histories, and, perhaps most importantly, how particular forms of thought can awaken our worst selves. This entire endeavor is impossible without a habit of mind that can be difficult to sustain: curiosity.

This week, we bring you three recommendations on the topic of how to stay curious; or more precisely, how I, Philip Lorish, stay curious.

 

My first recommendation is to read, and read widely. This is so predictable that it is almost unnecessary to mention. Almost. But in a world in which most of our jobs require increasing degrees of specialized knowledge, and in which the publishing landscape has been reorganized to accommodate niches within niches about niches, reading well across multiple areas of knowledge is no easy task. But it is rewarding.

Learning always begins by admitting what we don’t know.

In my own experience, learning to read widely begins with (and actually requires) a couple of frank admissions. In the first place, the reader must unapologetically own up to his or her interests. Before deciding whether a book or an article deserves our attention, we have to be clear-eyed about the fact that we are people with limited and unique interests, drawn to some topic or another for some reason or another that may or may not be clear to anyone, ourselves included. But drawn we are. And this first admission leads to a second — namely, that what draws us to any particular piece of writing is the hope of finding something we don’t already have. If we’re going to read well, in other words, we have to admit a significant degree of ignorance. We read to learn, and learning always begins by admitting what we don’t know.

With these two things in mind, my own practice has been to read as profligately as I can. While the scholar’s vocation is to read systematically within a discipline, and most professions require tightly focused topical reading, my general rule is to indulge my own interests as much as possible, without too much thought as to where those interests may lead. If my level of ignorance on a topic is unusually high, this may lead me to textbooks or articles littered with highly technical language. Usually, however, jargon is to be avoided whenever possible for its tendency to be, in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memorable phrase, “nothing but a form of protection against the naked life.” Over time, I’ve come to see that when I am happily free with my reading habits, encountering new ideas is to boredom what boosting my immune system is to the common cold: I may not be able to avoid it completely, but I can buoy myself against its worst effects.

 

Second: learn to think with other people. This may seem to contradict my charge to own up to our interests and chase them wherever they lead, but in my experience, it’s just the opposite. As soon as we own up to our interests, admit our ignorance, and search for figures who can shed light on our questions, we almost always find that we’re not the first person to take up a given question. Usually we are far from it, and the great gift of reading (even before the internet!) is the ability to find fellow travelers across time and space, to hear our own questions in theirs, and to discover what solace they found in a given set of answers.

The need for fellow travelers in the thinking life is what stuck with me after reading Alan Jacobs’ wonderful little book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. While the stated objective of the book is to help us have better arguments by resisting some of our worst habits of speech — “lumping,” “in-other-wordsing,” and so on — the book has the wonderful virtue of modeling the habits of mind it recommends. In crediting his intellectual fellow-travelers while making his own points, Jacobs heeds the advice of every one of my middle school math teachers: don’t just give the answer, show the work. The effect of this habit is that the reader benefits not only from Jacobs’ thoughts on a given matter (though we do get those), but also from some sense of how he’s arrived at his conclusions and, crucially, who has helped him get there.

The challenge of the first two recommendations, then, is to learn to unashamedly own up to our interests while laying down the pretense that we are their sole proprietors.

 

Describing an idea as “new” is often inaccurate

The third (and for this day, final) recommendation is to look for new combinations of familiar ideas. What differentiates the genuinely curious person from the sycophant or hack is the ability to move through other people’s thought toward some new, emergent combination of ideas. Describing an idea as “new” is often inaccurate; usually, it’s more accurate to say that a familiar idea has been modified or refreshed by juxtaposition with another.

This is the great insight of James Webb Young’s newly rediscovered book, first published in 1960, A Technique for Producing Ideas. Originally developed for marketing campaigns, Young’s process has been reinvigorated by media theorist Steven Johnson’s claim that new ideas emerge when we pay close attention not just to current convention, but to the “adjacent possible.” When we do, ideas, like ingredients in a recipe, clash and react and combine, creating the possibility for something else to emerge that cannot be reduced to its constitutive parts. Whether we stick with culinary metaphors or opt for one from the material arts — like bricolage — the important thing to stress is that insight — elusive and enrapturing as it is — is the result of combinations of familiar ideas, fresh fusions of well-known features of human life.

In my experience, this means that the greatest threat to sustained curiosity is not what we now call the “content” of any particular line of thought, but the failure to really think at all. Surely, some phenomena are more worthy of consideration than others, some ideas have proven themselves more dangerous than others, and there are many ways to give in to the temptation of ideological thinking. But that’s just it: at bottom, ideological thinking is not really thinking at all; it’s form of intellectual listlessness, a giving-in to the creeping sense that admitting our own ignorance, engaging with the thoughts of others, and looking for new combinations of ideas is more trouble than it’s worth.

From the beginning, we’ve said that Culture Briefing is an attempt to chart a course through the complexities of modern life. To accomplish this, we have to name those complexities as best as we can; to makes things, as Einstein allegedly said, “as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” And as we do this, our hope is not that readers will adopt our conclusions — tenuous though they often are — but rather, that they will adopt the habits of sustained curiosity from which they emerge.

 


Changes are afoot at Culture Briefing: we're refreshing our brand (including a new name), and this week’s volume is the final installment from founder and editor Philip Lorish. Onward and Upwards!