Insistent Curiosity: A Necessary Madness

David Macaulay wants to know how things work. Cathedrals, castles, the human body. Any subject matter will do, as long as it feeds his expansive and insistent curiosity.

To figure things out, Macaulay draws pictures. Drawing forces him to look more intensely, to better see and understand. It is a behavior that eludes us in a world of increasing complexity, he says. We are often oblivious to the way things work. We take for granted some of the miraculous systems — natural and manmade — that sustain us.

“Everyone can learn to see better — not what you’ve been told is in front of you, but what’s actually in front of you,” Macaulay says. “When you draw something you really have to look at it. And when you really look at it, you can’t avoid thinking about it.”

For 40 years, Macaulay has been drawing in order to question and clarify what he knows. The product of all this insistent curiosity is more than two dozen children’s books that explain through words and pictures how things are built, how they work, how they come together, and how they are taken apart. His talents as an author and illustrator have earned him numerous awards, including the distinguished MacArthur Fellowship and a Caldecott Medal for his book Black and White (1990).

Macaulay’s books are primarily visual narratives supplemented with text. “Sometimes it’s more efficient to use the words,” he explains, “but how great is it to have those two languages to work with and pick and choose from?”

The endearing inquisitiveness embodied by Macaulay’s work was sparked at the kitchen table of his childhood home in Lancashire, England, where his parents made things right in front of him.

Macaulay watched as things that were put together at the kitchen table went on to serve a practical purpose in his home and neighborhood. Witnessing people at work — making and fixing things — is too rare an experience nowadays, he says. And the more complex everyday objects become, the more we lose sight of how things work or what they mean.

“We’re discouraged from interacting with the very things we use every day,” Macaulay says. “And gradually this diminishes our natural curiosity.”

He suggests that the pace of life is actually sedating us. “It makes it almost impossible to recognize when you’re bored,” Macaulay says. “If you don’t recognize when you’re bored, you will just sit there. If you’re distracted from your own boredom by some senseless television program or too much Facebook, the days go by. It’s very passive.”

Macaulay demonstrates the flip side of this passivity through his delightful and sophisticated books — mostly histories, expositions, and illustrations of how extravagant buildings came together. He explores the lavish use of space and materials that make up these structures. He describes the political and spiritual aspirations that lifted every stone and joist into place.

Macaulay says he is not inspired by castles, per se, but by the human spirit that piled rocks on top of one another until they satisfied a very particular need. He says stepping into an immense cathedral or an exquisite mosque can make one feel ethereal in a way that no Manhattan high-rise ever could. He builds books around gorgeous buildings and fascinating objects because they remind him of what people can do.

Macaulay is himself a model of the unrelenting determination he celebrates in his work. He spent six years studying anatomy so that he could produce an accurate book on the human body. It was madness, he says, but it was necessary.

“There’s a humility that’s forced upon you as you beat your head against the wall trying to work out something,” he says. “But my experience tells me that eventually I’ll get there and it will have been worth all the effort.”