Curiosity's Cats: Writers on Research

Edited by Bruce Joshua Miller. St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014. 291 pp. $18.95 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0-87351-922-9.

All writers know that research can be a powerful tool of procrastination. But what about when it becomes a powerful source of inspiration? Curiosity’s Cats explores the wonders that come from diving down the rabbit holes of research. The thirteen essays in this volume touch on subjects from Albert Einstein and Minnesota in the 1920s to the Vinland sagas and suicide. The book’s contributors include a few notables – Ali Selim, Katherine Hall Page, Marilyn Stasio, Ned Stuckey-French and Jan Reid, to name a few – yet all of the essayists reflect on the research process in ways that are surprising and inspiring in their own right.

In “Dating Albert Einstein,” Alberto A. Martinez tells of the clarity of purpose and resourcefulness he needed to piece together the documentary evidence that would precisely date Einstein’s conception of the theory of relativity. Martinez creates a suspenseful narrative about “the addictive process by which researchers try to figure things out, sifting through old bits of evidence, squinting at ambiguous accounts, to try to get a clear picture of the forgotten past” (50-51). An event at first glance may seem blurred in the sands of time, he writes, but with curiosity, perseverance and even obsession, one can sift out the facts for a much finer-grain resolution.

Perhaps it is no surprise that a thread of obsession runs through many of the essayists’ reminiscences. Bruce Joshua Miller, editor and contributor to the volume (and long-time publisher’s rep and champion of the book) writes in “The Mad Bomber Guy” that “[o]ne of the curiosities of obsessive research is its similarity to the psychology of collecting – books, objets d’art, paintings, stamps, bits of string, anything. The pursuit is never satisfied because one object sought and found either leads to new questions or simply becomes an occasion for another search” (230). Even so, that difficulty of knowing when to stop (and its attendant rationalization for procrastination) fails to stand in Miller’s way. He writes that the detective work and the in-person interviews that he conducted for “The Mad Bomber Guy,” though consuming, became the greatest pleasure of his working life (213).

Doing research is not only about obsessing. There is great joy to be gained from it, too. In “An Essayist’s Guide to Research and Family Life,” Stuckey-French lays out nine compelling reasons for doing research, all based on his long experience as a writer. Among them are being transported to another time and place and having fun with that experience. He tells us that “[o]ne reason I like to write essays is that I learn something new by writing them” (277). Essayists, he aptly observes, are teachers, too.

Annette Kolodny describes how her book project took an unexpected turn in “Curious Encounters in My Search for Vinland” after interviewing a person known to have faked runic artifacts that suggested Viking presence in Maine. “It is often the surprises in the research process,” she writes, “that teach us the most” (169). The experience got her thinking about tales of “first contact” and how irrevocably intertwined they are with the politics of belonging.

In detailing the pleasures and perils of research, these essays go a long way to combat the bête noire of our age – that anything worth seeing (or knowing) can be googled on an iPhone. Miller notes that all of the essays included in this volume present research that required more creative effort than simply pressing buttons on a computer. But technophobes hoping for a comfortable dose of fuddy-duddyism will be disappointed. There are no disquisitions on bringing back the card catalogue, though readers will hear the occasional lament of lost opportunities for serendipity, on the Internet and in closed stacks. For the most part the research described in these essays takes the form of action: traveling to coastal Maine or a piazza in Rome; tracking down witnesses to events that happened 30 or 40 years ago, and securing interviews before it’s too late; and of course, visiting libraries and archives – activities that have all been made easier through technological innovation.

Not every essay will appeal to every reader’s taste, but sampling and then reading more closely where one is beckoned is what makes this work delightful. As the title suggests, Curiosity’s Cats is written for all who are intellectually curious – not only the writers, filmmakers and historians who seem to be the target audience.


Elizabeth Frengel, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University