The Appeal of Obsessives

Obsession with obsessivenessEach week at the local library, where I serve as a volunteer literacy tutor, a man comes in and sits down at the table across from ours. I assume he’s homeless, because his skin and clothes are dirty, and his hair unkempt. (Since he has a full beard and lacks an iPod, he’s probably not a local rock star.) Each week, at precisely 12:30 PM, he pulls the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — and only those two publications –off a nearby rack and commences to smoothing them page by page. Every page. He quickly runs his palm over each sheet, like someone applying a poster to a wall, and moves onto the next sheet until he’s gone through the entire edition. Then he leaves without reading or pausing even briefly to admire his work. He smooths. He departs.

There have been times when I’ve had the impulse to ask him why he does what he does. I’ve considered asking as politely as possible, “Why do you do that?” (And maybe next week I will and report back on the answer.) But I fear the answer would be less interesting and maybe more troubling than the various scenarios I’ve imagined. So I just observe.

Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the paper-smoother vagrant isn’t why he has this peculiar habit, but simply that he has it. In her magnificent book “The Orchid Thief,” Susan Orlean explored the idea that we “normal” people don’t turn our lives inside out for things like, say, rare swamp orchids; the people that do are wildly compellingThe Orchid Thief Cover characters, even if we can’t understand their motives. Some of the characters I wrote about in my first book, “The Man With the $100,000 Breasts,” are by many measures profoundly sick people. But, like a train wreck, it’s hard not to look. Archie Karas, for example, parlayed a borrowed stake of $10,000 into $17 million — and lost back every single penny. Tragic, infuriating, pathetic — call it what you wish. The man’s story, his compulsion, is somehow entrancing.

Cat ladies. Bird watchers. Coin collectors. Trekkies. Acolytes of the cornet player Bix Biederbecke. Library newspaper smoothers. They’re all remarkable characters not necessarily because of the object of their obsession but because they have such intense passion for something. Anything. So many people go through life without much interest in anything, except maybe things that can buy and consume. Or celebrities. When we encounter those who are beyond interested — those who are obsessed — with an object or sound or activity, we’re drawn to the gravity of their belief. They’re engaged, they’re desperate, they’re broken — yet they’re beautiful, too.

Athletes and artists, activists and researchers, cross-continent walkers and trans-oceanic rafters, they’re driven by demons that few of us can feel, let alone understand. Those obsessions are what make them unusual human beings, and that may be the loveliest obsession of all.

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