Curious Bibliophiles

Karel_Rélink_Der_Bibliophile_1902

Karel Rélink [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bibliophiles are curious people. That may be taken in two ways and both are true. They are “curious” in the sense of being kind of odd or unusual. Books are part of their home decorating scheme. When packing for a trip, the question of “what books will I take?” may be more important than what clothes will I need. A great day is when I discover a new bookstore, or find a book I’ve always wanted to read. We are “curious” people, to be sure.

We are also curious people in that we read to understand our world. At least one of the reasons for at least some of our book choices begins with, “I always wanted to learn about…” or “I came across a book about…and I decided that might be fascinating to read.” Sometimes our curiosity is driven by real life concerns, such as when I read an in depth account of the battle of Gettysburg before visiting the battlefield. And sometimes, our curiosity seems just sparked by a whim.

Curiosity has taken me all kinds of places, from exploring the doctrine of the Trinity to the everyday phenomenon of rain. It has led me into the delightful world of Wendell Berry’s Port William Society, and through a friend’s suggestion, into the fantasy world of Middle Earth, a place I’ve visited again and again in every decade of my life. It’s taken me into darker places as well–the specter of eviction, the “problem from hell” of genocide and the evil of human trafficking.

This brings me to a question I’ve been thinking about lately. Ought we have any boundaries on our curiosity? I’m not talking about boundaries others set, which I would consider an improper, and in the American system, unconstitutional intrusion upon our liberties. The question was provoked for me when I read Bookstore, and particularly passages in which the store owner spoke of her fascination with reading about inter-species sex and about cannibalism. I think my first response was “yuck” and my second to wonder “why ever would you be interest in that?” Then it occurred to me that, much as I find these things repugnant, the truth is that they are part of the human experience, and it might not be utterly bonkers that someone would research these things and others understand them. As far as I know, this person never participated in such things and curiosity to understand phenomena like these no more necessarily leads to doing them than reading about human trafficking inclines me to traffic human beings.

I do wonder if there might be two situations in which curiosity might exceed the bounds of health. One is where that about which we are curious leads to an insatiable quest to know more and more, to the neglect of duties in real life. Do you know those who have developed an unhealthy absorption with conspiracy theories, who are constantly reading about them, talking about them, worrying about them, and in the process, alienating their friends?

The other is when curiosity leads to our minds and emotions going to places we know that for us are not healthy or even tempt us to act out in ways that are morally wrong. And here, two people may be very different. Descriptions of violence, even when not gratuitous, or erotic scenes may affect two people very differently. I had to set down the work of one science fiction writer, fascinating as I found his writing, because there was something in his recurring portrayals of violence that was not good for me. Nor do I think exploring the world of the occult, with the view of searching out the things God has hidden to be a healthy exercise of curiosity.

That said, for the most part, I think curiosity a good thing–that we were given minds of such capacity to explore every nook and cranny of God’s good world. Books are a wonderfully convenient way to do that. I don’t just read pages, but embark on a journey of discovery, whether it is of astrophysics or the composition of a Mozart. I think curiosity is one of the reasons for why we read. Curious bibliophiles, indeed!

What do you think?

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