Monday, September 11, 2006

Fanatics Unite! (from a guest blogger)

In the last couple weeks, I’ve learned about Aquaman fans, notebook collectors, people obsessed with Jamba Juice, and so-called “case fanatics” who’ve been following – and trying to solve – the murder case of JonBenet Ramsey for years.

I don’t go looking for these passionate fanatics, but I do notice them – probably more than most people do. See, I spent the last three years zig-zagging the country while working on a book about passionate fanatics called WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE? Among other people, I studied pigeon racers and Barbie collectors and furries and Grobanites, which are middle-aged women who are over-the-top in love with the singer Josh Groban.

When people ask why I was interested in the topic (which, I’ve since learned, is merely a polite way of asking, “Why the hell would you want to hang out with such weirdos?”), I tell them it’s because I don’t have an obsession-passion-call-it-what-you-will thing.

My official research has ended, the book is out, but I’m still fascinated by the fascinations of others. And as I give media interviews, I realize other people are as well. The radio shows I’ve been on are jammed with callers eager to talk about the quirky fanatics they know: the geologist who doesn’t like anything younger than 25 million years, the Oakland Raiders fan with the specially made dental crown, the guy who loves Frisbee golf so much he even plays in the snow. Everyone I speak with (and I mean everyone) has a story of some “crazy” obsessive in their life.

So… Bookseller Chick asked me: What is it about fanaticism that captures our attention? Why are books like mine or the Orchid Thief or The Big Year or Confederates in the Attic still being published to receptive audiences?

I’ve got four theories:

1. Because there are an endless supply of fascinations out there, and the variety itself can boggle the mind. Get on, and you’ll find groups organized around beekeeping, cake decorating, dumpster diving, Elvis, flashlights, graffiti, juggling, magic, poi, pugs, robotics, roller coasters, scrapbooks, skyscrapers, yo-yos, Ukrainian eggs and hundreds of other interests. The endless variety of these groups, and the secret insider language and rituals they develop, are mystifying and entertaining to those on the outside.

2. Because these fanatical groups help us better understand who we are as individuals. An added bonus: classifying someone as a “weirdo” helps us feel better about ourselves. Social psychologists call this the theory of social comparison. According to this theory, how we feel about ourselves is largely based upon who we compare ourselves to. When we see someone dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, or dusting off their display of 5,000 Hot Wheels, or wearing a Cheesehead to a football game, it’s easy for those of us who don’t share the fascination to ridicule it, and in so doing, slightly elevate our own self-conception. (Sorry. But it’s true. I know from personal experience.)

3. No one thinks that they are fanatical. Several months ago, I sat transfixed as a friend unraveled two hour’s worth of details about The Sound of Music and all its stars and where it was filmed and how and why the movie had affected her so much. This woman, who’s highly educated, speaks several languages and grew up abroad, was so over-the-top in love with The Sound of Music that she’d attend Sound of Music sing-alongs. The event attracts fans dressed in lederhosen and nun habits and Nazi uniforms, all of whom watch the movie on a big screen and, as the name suggests, sing along.

“But I’m not a fanatic,” she assured me. “I’m not like most of the people who go to the sing-along.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“They dress up,” she said. “I would never do that.”

As this friend nicely illustrates -- we never view ourselves as “crazy." That’s why it’s fun to read about others who are.

4. Finally, I think books about fanatics (particularly narrative nonfiction books) continue to sell for the same reason all good stories sell: Because they lift the veil on some aspect of the human condition, and in so doing, help readers understand their own world a little better.

So….. here’s my invitation: I truly believe we all have some kind of micro-interest with which we express the quirky, colorful sides of ourselves. Post a comment confessing to your own fanatical passion and the poster who demonstrates the most colorful, unusual or obsessive fascination will win a free signed copy of my book, WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE?

--Shari Caudron


Anonymous said...

Nothing makes me feel better than when I am in the middle of being totally consumed by one of my passions. During those times, I am not worried about the future or regreful of the past, I am just completely in the moment.

My passion for rock and roll witnessed me pulling my car over to the side of the road so that I could point out to my girlfriend (who couldn't have cared less but generously beared with me) the brilliance of the introduction of the triangle into the 4th verse of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." I mean really, how can a band pull off 4 verses. It is almost impossible. But that triangle delivers the band to the promised land!

This week I have watched 20+ hours of Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary while doing my work. 9 DVDs in 1 week and I can't believe it is over. I will need to rewatch. The weird thing is that I'm not even a classic sports fan. I don't like other sports. Just baseball. I with futility to non-baseball fans about the beauty of the details, and believe wholeheartedly that everyone who doesn't get it is sadly misguided.

If I didn't have these passions I would be lost. Thanks Shari for helping to feel less weird about that. Compared to some of the folks in your book, I am downright normal.

Bookseller Chick said...

I am obsessed with paper products--card stock specifically. I cannot go through a card shop without picking up two or three cards at a time ranging from those who make me laugh to those who make me cry. I'm a sucker for the philosphyical card, the quote card, the humor card.

I justify my obsession by eventually giving these cards away. Those I don't frame or turn into something else sit in a wicker box until such time as they are needed for a birthday or a wedding or just a "thinking of you." The upside to this is I'm never without a card when a birthday comes around (even if I'd forgotten until that point), the downside is I have a whole lot of holiday cards I never remember to send out in time.

But oh the joy that comes from sorting through, looking at the pictures and sayings, feeling the high grade paper against my fingers. And really, thie is a step up from my last obsession with blank books, which I've been slowly weaning myself away from over the years. It helped that I finally past the stage where angsty teen poetry HAD to be written in something leatherbound with scroll work. The angst demanded it must be so.

So there you go. I'm obsessed with cards. Milkwright (sp?), Lane Walker Foard, Hallmark: they have all found their way into my hot little hands, awaiting the day when they can be unleashed upon the world. If I can ever find the perfect person to give them to, that is.

quiche said...

Rather than call it obssession I call my Sandra Boynton pillowcases a collection. In addition to her pillowcases I also collect her 80's Zoominary stuffed animals. I thank and curse ebay for making this possible.

Amie Stuart said...

I'm just flat out too embarrassed but I'll see if my critique partner is willing to come over here and spill her guts. =)

Dennie McDonald said...

okay see - (now I was dared to come over here and spill my guts) - I have never thought of myself as a fanatic about anything - okay I do obsess about a particular country crooner (Chris Cagle) but I am NOT a card-caring member of his ego club so I am not THAT obsessed. ;-)

I realized recently through talking to a woman I would not normnal spend two minutes in a room with upon her learning that I am a writer and she thought that was cool - sorry I digress - anyhoo - I realized that my books, the ones I own not have written, could be construed as obsessive - I have over 1100 in hand (or under the bed as the case may be) this doesn't include 50 or so e-books and ones I let the DH talk me into selling... that's not fanatical is it? (and I know how many I have as they are catelogued - that's not weird either is it?!?!?!?)

if I have another obsession I am missing I suppose my friend could remind me 'cause I can't think of anything else ;-)

Kendall said...

FWIW, I think there's a fifth reason people find other people's obsessions interesting. It's what I'll call the reality TV syndrome (though of course it's much older than that) -- the morbid curiosity/interest/fascination of "wait, someone really obsesses on THAT?" and "people really do THAT because they're so into xyz?" ;-)

(Sorry, I am obsessive, but can't think of something good; I have many minor obsessions & fascinations, though....)

Anonymous said...

This is awful...but I am obsessed with toe fungus! I clean between my toes with q-tips and alcohol at least 2-3 times daily...and summertime is just horrible for me as I cannot help but stare at people's toejam in their sandals!