Curiosity seems to be a word of the moment. It’s a staple of TED lectures, a buzzword of educational reformers, and an advertising theme of Vanity Fair magazine. (“Were you born curious?” asks an ad. “Tell us your curiosity story.”) Now comes this book by Ian Leslie, full of such stories, and a very curious book it is.

Almost every page of Leslie’s book springs a surprise. Stories that sound inspiring prove cautionary: for example, a man learns over two dozen languages, only to rue that he has not chosen one for deeper study. Stories that sound cautionary—two boys with a loaded pistol—demonstrate a hunger for knowledge.

In Leslie’s telling, curiosity is far from a valued quality. It has long been disparaged by schools, businesses, and especially the church. Augustine, he notes, equated curiosity with temptation. Even today the word suggests something not quite right. On the other hand, he says, “we romanticize the natural curiosity of children and worry that it will be contaminated by knowledge, when the opposite is true. We confuse the practice of curiosity with ease of access to information and forget that real curiosity requires the exercise of effort.”