Curiosity

I like the way libraries smell. I like the way everything feels accessible, organized. I like to see the grids of books on shelves and grids of shelves on floors and to think about the weight of the floors on top of floors in a humming Rubik’s cube of information. Letters lined up in words, lined up on pages, tucked into covers. All the information feels present, possible, suspended—like quiet dark birds sitting up on telephone wires.  

Clara McClenon,    Treetops (McCarren Park),    2018, Charcoal pencil and gesso on paper, 5 x 7”

Clara McClenon, Treetops (McCarren Park), 2018, Charcoal pencil and gesso on paper, 5 x 7”


Growing up, I had a sense that I’d real all the books in the library one day. It just seemed inevitable. I’d check out towering loads at a time, hauling them home in bulging tote bags and stacking them on my bedside table. I figured I was on track. I got top grades. I liked all subjects. I read mountains of books. Devouring information, I felt assured that, by the time I was older, I’d have it all figured out.  

I’d thought that books were bricks. In reading, I thought I was building something I could climb, like a pyramid ascending to knowledge. It felt sturdier to build a wide base, so I read widely, pulling from biology and history, music and chemistry, literature and art. I read about dreams, cooking, magic, robots, etiquette, psychology, and economics and always felt eager for more.  

No one told me how much I’d forget.

It started with novels. College friends would ask for recommendations and titles would come to mind…. but I struggled to recall even basic plot points. Around the same time, I was struck by panic when I looked back at my Latin American History syllabus and realized I couldn’t remember what I’d written my midterm on (though I’d earned an A in the course).

As a student, learning about things meant having the answers for the next level. You memorized and took a test. You passed Pre-Cal and went on to Calculus. You rose from Freshman on to Sophomore. Learning was to get you past thresholds: final exams, semesters, grades, graduations. It all conveyed a sense of accumulation and ascent. But with a leaking brain, forgetting as fast as I was learning, I worried that I wasn’t qualified to level up. I secretly hoped there’d be a final exam before graduation. Shouldn’t there be a checkpoint to make sure I really knew everything?

There wasn’t. My GPA and course credits awarded me my degree without question. I sold my textbooks back to the bookstore, lugged my library books back to the library, and ripped my notes from their spiral bindings so I could lay them in the recycling bin.

I’d hoped learning meant reaching a high point where I could look out and understand everything at once, but my years of study hadn’t built me a pyramid and I certainly didn’t feel like I had anything figured out. Graduating, I felt disappointed, disillusioned, and a little bit lost. Not only was I no longer a student for the first time in 17+ years, but my whole sense of the purpose of my education felt shaky. It wasn’t just the forgetting that bothered me. I ached to know the world, but every step into a subject had only revealed the immensity of what there was to learn. More than ever, I felt the futility of accumulating knowledge from an infinite pool. What had been the point of my relentless curiosity?

A few months back I came across a study that sought to understand the impact of exposure to the humanities (music, visual arts, literature, theater, etc.) on medical students. Analysis of the study’s survey data revealed a significant correlation between exposure to the humanities and positive qualities like empathy, wisdom, and tolerance for ambiguity. The researchers noted that, of course, correlation is not causation. We can’t say that exposure to humanities made the students wiser. (Or visa versa.) In fact, the author suggested that there could be an underlying factor linking exposure to the humanities and the positive personal qualities they’d measured. One such factor they suggested? Curiosity-- the desire to know and learn.

I don’t always like curiosity. It’s sent me down strange paths to seemingly dead ends. It’s left me with dry, scratchy eyes from following too many links through too many articles on my phone. It’s led me in circles of indecision. But it’s a spark.

I sit in front of a tree and look up at its thousands of leaves, and the flicker of light, and the branches and twigs. It’s a library and I can’t read it all. Paper and pencil in hand, I’m saddened and humbled and awed-- overwhelmed, as ever, by the immensity of information.

But I begin. Line by line, mark by mark, look by look… and somewhere along the way I stop worrying about how I’ll ever get to the finish because I’m just in it. I’m beyond my intellect. In drawing, I’m reminded that the real fruit of curiosity isn’t accumulation, but presence.

I don’t think of learning as an ascent anymore. When I read, which I still do, hungrily and widely, it’s because I want to keep coming home to what it feels like to be here. And that’s a million contradictory things, and that’s too big to know, and it’s achingly familiar.  I keep learning (reading, looking, drawing, listening) because I yearn for not for mastery, but mystery. I keep learning because I love the world and I want to be close to it.