Golf Balls! Pencils! Whales! What Makes an Author’s Obsession a Thrill, Not a Bore?
As a writer, I know that my obsessions are built on the back of other people’s obsessions. When I feel a sudden need for a deep dive into a subject — say, the transmission of the plays of Aeschylus through scribes and libraries from ancient times to the present — I am grateful to the academics who have done the spadework. I can read the driest footnote and find gold in it. As Susan Orlean put it succinctly on Twitter last year, “For me, writing is really just learning about things that interest me, and then trying to convince you to find them as interesting as I do.”
But writing about your obsessions comes with risks. For one thing, when you’re obsessed by something, everything about it is interesting: You can lose perspective and turn into a giant bore. Believe it or not, some people are bored by the amount of detail in “Moby-Dick.” Rereading the novel, a descendant of Melville’s found herself thinking, “Where was your editor?” In “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael seems quite mad, going on about the white shark and the polar bear (their whiteness demands a footnote) and the albatross and the White Steed of the Prairies and the Albino man and the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the white flag. In the chapter on cetology, we have to plow through a dozen pages of whale species, some of them possibly apocryphal, before we get to the payoff, a motto for freelance writers: “Oh Time, Strength, Cash and Patience!”
When I started working on a book about language, I assumed a level of interest that was just not there. A guided tour of the New Yorker stylebook, anyone? A monograph devoted to the front matter of the American Heritage Dictionary as annotated by a proofreader? Or just me hopping around in Webster’s Second Unabridged? (Editor’s mark: Delete.) You can’t expect a reader to be as interested as you are in a subject’s minusculitude — a beautiful word I just came across in “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer, a Pulitzer Prize winner featuring a Pulitzer Prize winner. You have to earn that interest by arousing or entertaining your audience, as Greer does, or by sneaking your pet subject in, as Gary Shteyngart does, when he gives luxury wristwatches to characters in “Lake Success.” Or you may have to seek professional help in the form of an editor who will tell you candidly what’s boring and what’s not.
For a while I both hoped and feared that writing about my obsessions would make them go away, like a writer’s form of the talking cure. But whoo, boy, I am more obsessed than ever. It would not be an obsession if it were so easily quenched. I was embarrassed at first to write about pencils. In confessing some of my feelings — my fear of indelible lead, the sadness and futility of an eraser worn down to the ferrule, the compulsion to pick up broken pencils on the street — I worried that I shouldn’t go public. Maybe it was O.K. to keep a display of dainty pencil shavings on the shelf as long as you didn’t tell anyone about it.
What a joy to find that there were people who shared my pencil passion! If an obsession can be defined as something there is no end to, there is no end to what I have to say about pencils. From where I am sitting right now, I can reach no fewer than five cups jammed with them: souvenir pencils, gift pencils, giant pencils, bark pencils, pencils with paintbrushes on one end, pencils with caps to keep the point from breaking. There is one cup of pens, mostly cadged from banks and hotels. It turns out that writing about an obsession, far from exhausting it, fans the flames.