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Curiouser and Curiouser
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
When Caleb Carr's crime novel The Alienist came out in 1994, I was intrigued by the initial enthusiastic reviews that the book generated and immediately bough a copy in hardcover. Not for the squeamish, the novel follows the investigation of a particularly vicious serial killer in Gilded Age New York City, and the story features many real-life figures from the era as well, including future President Theodore Roosevelt.
It's a fascinating mix of horror novel, forensic procedural, and historical fiction, and the book was a massive success in the mid-90s, staying on the Top 10 lists for months and earning a cool half-million in motion picture rights. A number of producers and directors attempted to get the film version into production, but it became one of those snake-bit properties that never seemed to get the stars to align just right for the project to get the go-ahead.
Finally, it was announced just this year that The Alienist was going to become a 10 episode television event on one of the braver cable channels, to be helmed by True Detective director Cary Fukunaga, who is obviously no stranger to dark or lurid material.
Of course I'm looking forward to the filmed version of The Alienist, and not just because the book was one of my favorites of that era. The Alienist was a little more for me. It became a veritable "Pied Piper" of a book then, one that led me directly to a bunch of other terrific books that were connected, in some way, to the story and milieu in "The Alienist." I didn't realize then just how fascinated I would become by that particular era of New York's history that Carr brought out so vividly.
The backdrop of The Alienist includes a lengthy description of the various gangs and criminals of the city at the time, and that led me directly to reading both Gangs of New York (1928) by Herbert Asbury (the basis for the Scorsese movie), and Luc Sante's Low-Life (1991), a great, vibrant history of the seamier side of NYC in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many scenes in The Alienist take place in the legendary Delmonico's restaurant in New York City, and that led me to picking up a copy of Delmonico's: A Century of Splendor (1967), by Lately Thomas, a fascinating, detailed account of the first great restaurant in America's history. Of course, the "Gilded Age" described in the book led me to The Age of Innocence (1921) by Edith Wharton, a novel I wanted to read previously but never got around to, and I inevitably doubled back on the writers that The Alienist had led me to initially, reading all of Sante's books and a few of Thomas' histories as well, and also picking up a copy of Sucker's Progress (1938), Asbury's history of gambling in America.
Anyway, all told The Alienist probably led me to a solid dozen books, books that I eventually enjoyed almost as much as the original crime story. It's a tribute to the power of storytelling, when a narrative can fire your curiosity so much that you actively engage in making your own, singular discoveries in other books.
It's probably a good thing that I discovered "The Alienist" in the 90s for I don't know if I'd have the same response to it (and its influence) today. I'm not sure I'd be as compelled to seek out those various other books. The sad truth is, I'm not as curious as I was back then. It could be my age, or it could be the age I live in, but I'm afraid my inherent curiosity has waned significantly since the 90s. Maybe it's a temporary condition, maybe curiosity is something that (like creativity) needs to be thought of as a muscle — the more you exercise it, the more useful it becomes to you. But I'm very aware that it's becoming easy for me to slip my mind into neutral when I used to enjoy the active cognitive process of imaginative discovery.
Curiosity. Simple curiosity. Why do I feel that it's such a battle to remain curious? This is the part of the essay where I usually lecture you soulless, attention-deprived technonerds out there, for your slavish devotions to your gadgets and your gadget-speak and your "trending," but actually I'm only looking at my own behavior right now. And the fact is, my attention span is so easily diverted by being constantly plugged in that my most cherished cognitive activities--creativity, imagination, curiosity--are blunted on a daily basis.
It's not that bad, of course — I'm prone to hyperbole — and it's not ALL bad, either, but the fact is I have to be vigilant about my state of connectivity if I want to get anything done that I'm proud of. It's only been two years since I got my first smart phone and yet I know I'm not exaggerating when I say that the effect on me has been galvanic. The most precious commodity I have is time, and yet time is the very thing I set fire to when I grab my phone without thinking. Time first; then curiosity.
Of course I really am dying to lecture you soulless, attention-deprived technonerds out there, so I'll do it now, in closing, by way of a long quote from Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows (2010), a critical analysis of technology addiction: “I don't read books," says Joe O'Shea, a former president of the student body at Florida State University and a 2008 recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship. "I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly." O'Shea, a philosophy major, doesn't see any reason to plow through chapters of text when it takes but a minute or two to cherry-pick the pertinent passages using Google Book Search. "Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn't make sense," he says. "It's not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web." As soon as you learn to be a "skilled hunter" online, he argues, books become superfluous.
Books become superfluous. I know I don't need to underline this too strongly, but philosophy major? Rhodes Scholar? Student Body President? These used to be titles that suggested someone with a robust curiosity, and yet here is one of the Best and Brightest, blithely dismissing the very notion of deep reading. Perhaps its just the new landscape but I'm not sure that I want to get too comfortable taking my place in this brave new world of the Incurious.