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 Meetup.com, 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?