Friday, February 13, 2009
I’ve always been a “pattern” reader; i.e., read one type of book, a mystery, say, and then read nothing but mysteries until something else catches my eye. That’s why I was so confused by my recent reading—there didn’t seem to be a connection from book to book at all. Thankfully, I’ve come up with a theory (some might call it a rationalization) to explain my somewhat peculiar reading habits: Literature of Obsession. Think about it. Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil? Obsessive. The Orchid Thief? Obsessive. Orchid Fever, Tulipomania, A Rum Affair, The Arcanum—all about obsessive people. On the other hand, there are books like The Search for the Giant Squid and Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, wherein a subject that does not normally have mass appeal becomes popular because the author is so crazy about it you just get caught up in the frenzy.
For me, the book that started it all is Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. The book is technically about a murder in Savannah, Georgia and the subsequent trial of a local art dealer. But what made the book so fascinating is its portrait of the colorful residents of Savannah. How could I not be charmed by the old gentleman who walked the invisible dog every day? Or the raconteur who broke into people’s houses to host massive parties? Or the ineffable, irrepressible Lady Chablis? The murder trial was the least memorable thing about the book.
The same holds true for The Orchid Thief. The particular crime the book is ostensibly about is interesting enough: someone on trial for removing orchids from a reservation claiming he’s not guilty because Native Americans did the actual removing, and they’re allowed to. But just like Susan Orlean, I became fascinated by the orchid subculture. Some people just plain lose their minds where orchids are concerned. In fact, I became so intrigued by these people and their orchid obsessions that I picked up Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever. To my surprise, Orlean hadn’t even scratched the surface of the weirdness of orchid folk. Plus, this book has one of the funniest opening passages I have ever read; do not read it while drinking.
Next up was Tulipomania, about the Dutch tulip frenzy in the mid-1600’s. Dash’s book gives a very thorough overview of a time when a tulip bulb (i.e., something which had not bloomed yet, might never bloom, and might not be the bloom that was promised) was worth prices up to 3 times an average person’s yearly income. My spate of flower-related reading eventually led me to A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud. This story of a possible botanical fraud (and a fairly recent one, at that) was rendered utterly fascinating, largely due to the wit and style of Karl Sabbagh.
Not into flowers? How about porcelain? Did you know that for centuries, only Asian countries knew the secret of creating porcelain? Neither did I, until I happened upon Janet Gleeson’s The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story. Gleeson’s book tells the story of a self-proclaimed alchemist, who convinced a king that he could turn lead into gold. Unable to duplicate his initial “success,” the alchemist was imprisoned until such time as he made good on his claims. He was never able to turn lead into gold, but he did stumble upon the recipe for porcelain. The kicker is that he never really got out of prison—although happy to profit from the sudden fashion for porcelain, the king never forgave the erstwhile alchemist for not turning lead into gold.
I could go on and on about books in this vein: Brunelleschi’s Dome: How A Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, Longitude: The True Story of the Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Mauve: How One Man Invented A Color That Changed the World (You can invent colors? Who knew?), The Island of Lost Maps, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, The Professor & the Madman, The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, etc., all centered around obsessive personalities. But there’s a second kind of obsession that catches my eye as well—folks who are so entranced by their subject matter that you get drawn in to topics you might not ordinarily be interested in.
For me, the master of this is Richard Ellis. If you’ve read my other columns or (heaven help you) had to listen to me in person, you know how obsessed I’ve become with The Search For the Giant Squid. The idea that we know this giant creature exists but have only recently (like, in the last year) seen one thriving in its own environment is a continual fascination to me. But my oceanic obsession actually began with an earlier Ellis book: Deep Atlantic: Life, Death, and Exploration in the Abyss. I picked it up because the white-on-black drawings of the deep-sea creepy critters looked cool. I finished it because Ellis made the story so compelling. Then when I saw the squid book, I had to have it.
I was similarly affected by Richard Fortey’s Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution. I had heard of trilobites, and the cover was kind of cool, so I figured I’d give the book a try. I didn’t expect it to fascinate me. I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t want to put it down. In short, I didn’t expect Richard Fortey. The man is nuts about trilobites. Dotty. Giddy. And darned if I didn’t get all caught up in it, to the point of staff selections and columns like this. Similar books would be Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Time: Its Origin, Its Enigma, Its History, A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth, Absinthe: History in a Bottle, and Buried Alive! The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear.
The kicker is that all of these books have proven relatively popular, at least when I was in bookstores. I mean, I’ve read most of them (and covet the rest of them), but as we established earlier, I’m somewhat peculiar. What’s interesting is how many other folks are attracted to obsession. Are you a kindred spirit? Have you read and enjoyed one of these books, but didn’t know where to go next? I hope you’ll check out some of these other books. If you do, drop me a line and let me know what you think.