Book Review: A Curious Mind - Go for It!

Hollywood mega-producer Brian Grazer is well known for his commercial and artistic successes, but I don’t believe he has any particular academic credentials as an educator. Nevertheless, teachers and parents everywhere should adopt the mantra of A Curious Mind:

Encouraging and stimulating curiosity should be the first priority of education.

A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman (Simon & Schuster)

Now, you’d think such a notion would be duh-obvious. Apparently, it’s not. In this country at least, the emphasis on standardized test results necessarily limits the permissible range of student curiosity. Teachers have to go by the book. As well, there’s the risk of embarrassment: Teachers (and parents) may not be comfortable with student queries for which they have no ready answer:

What was before the Big Bang? How many termites would it take to eat a house? How do I get an agent?

I’m reminded of something that happened in my family years ago. It was late summer, and my eight-year-old son was in the backyard. He managed to trap a grasshopper and put it in a jar. He became so fascinated with it that he made a sketch of it. Then he got out the encyclopedia (these were pre-Google days), and he spent the afternoon labeling each part. Understandably, his parents were overjoyed. We thought we had a born medical illustrator here – or possibly a neurosurgeon? However, when he proudly took the sketch to school to show his teacher, her unimaginative response was, “That’s nice. We’ll put this up on our bulletin board when we do our science unit in the spring.” (It was September.)

Media phenom Brian Grazer (Jeff Lipsky)

Grazer admits he never finished law school. He took a job as a legal clerk at Warner Bros. His duties involved running contracts to the offices and private homes of agents, producers, directors, and stars. He made a deliberate decision to use these meetings for what today we’d call networking. He’d insist that he was under strict instructions to hand-deliver the documents to the high-powered addressee. More often than not, he’d be received warmly and invited to sit and chat.

And that’s when he says his curiosity took over. He engaged moguls and celebrities in conversation by asking them questions about themselves. And they were usually more than happy to talk. Grazer cautions in the book that he never asked any of these new acquaintances for favors. He simply learned their likes and dislikes, their foibles and their fantasies. He thus learned the business from the inside by politely asking question after question after question.

So it was that exercising his genuine interest in people gave Brian Grazer the ability to work a room – and eventually a company town and a global industry.

But his curiosity didn’t stop there. He came to realize that the entertainment business was too confining to feed his curious mind. “For thirty-five years,” he writes, “I’ve been tracking down people about whom I was curious and asking if I could sit down with them for an hour … my only rule for myself was that the people had to be from outside the world of movies and TV.”

Coathor Charles Fishman (Lidia Gjorjievska)

A Curious Mind is essentially a celebrity autobiography. Grazer discloses that coauthor Charles Fishman wrote drafts based on a series of in-person interviews with him. It’s an engaging story, and its scope extends beyond the basic notion of investigation-as-education to include the arc of the producer’s remarkable career and open-minded outlook on life. As for Fishman, collaborators, ghostwriters, and editors face a difficult task in subordinating their own personal styles so that they can capture their client’s unique voice. He is to be commended for capturing both Grazer’s still-boyish enthusiasm and his Hollywood savvy.

A coming attraction from Grazer's Imagine Entertainment will be The Dark Tower, adapted from the sci-fi novel by Stephen King (Sony Pictures Entertainment)

For my part, one time curiosity bit me particularly hard. I first saw the painting The Baptism at LACMA almost 20 years ago. The museum card said it was rumored to depict an event in the Vanderbilt family, but no one knows for sure. Then there was the tantalizing footnote that the painting has an inscription on the back – which the artist took pains to remove. I decided I’d dig into the story. I figured it would take a few weeks. I was done with the research last year, and my novel Bonfire of the Vanderbilts is the result. I had no idea I was capable of such an extended attention span, but along the way I probably dug through as many old books as three doctoral candidates in art history.

To generalize from all this, if you can stimulate curiosity in a child, you don’t even have to point her to the library. There’s this new thing called Google.

I wonder: Was Bing named for Crosby or that sound you hear in your head when the curiosity light comes on?

Gerald Everett Jones is a novelist, small-press publisher, and host of the GetPublished! radio show. He is a frequent contributor to LASplash.com. 

Listen to the podcast of this review:

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