I was not a big reader of Anne McCaffrey, the fantasy author who died yesterday. I read her book "Dragonsong" in the fourth grade, and then I’m not sure I read any more; in any event, reading some of the memorials that were posted yesterday has made it clear that I never read the books most people thought were her most important and enduring. I don’t even remember much about "Dragonsong," though more than you’d probably expect given that this was 23 years ago. But it was one of the first books that I was really obsessed with, that I didn’t just enjoy but thought about all the time -- I remember writing multiple entries in my fourth-grade class journal about it, which my teacher must have really been thrilled about. And even though that obsession, that tendency to become completely consumed by the latest book I loved, was one of my greatest social liabilities at the time, I also think it’s one of the most towering forms of joy I’ve ever experienced. I have to give thanks to Anne McCaffrey for that."Dragonsong" wasn’t my earliest literary obsession -- that honor goes to King Arthur stories (mainly "The Sword in the Stone") and Greek myths (mainly D’Aulaire’s). That was in preschool*; after that it was "A Wrinkle in Time" and the rest of that series, then "Dragonsong" and "Watership Down." I could go on.
I don’t remember the names of most of my friends from this period, or my teachers; I don’t know if I was popular (doubtful) or ostracized or mocked, if I got invited to parties and if so whose. But I remember with great ferocity every fantasy game I built from my obsessions, all the time I spent knotted up in them like a security blanket.That sounds like I’m talking about a pretty lonely kid, and I guess it probably looked that way for a while (although in my defense, by "Watership Down" time I’d managed to recruit a few other sad little rabbits to my warren). But that’s the thing about obsession: It doesn’t leave room for mundane things like loneliness, things that depend on you checking in with the rest of the world. It’s private and self-sustaining -- a perpetual motion internal engine, feeding off the heat that it creates. It makes “lonely” kind of a meaningless concept.Besides, literary obsession is a lot like social engagement, only it’s more consuming and energizing and it takes place inside your head where you don’t have to deal with human people at all. It is, in fact, exactly like having a crush on a human person -- it monopolizes your thoughts, sharpens your senses and makes your world feel enchanted for a while. In both cases you have to make sure not to slip and start mixing up fantasy with reality, but as long as you can maintain that boundary, it’s electric.It would be kind of exhausting to go around crushed out all the time, of course -- intoxicating, but exhausting. You want to be able to have calmer, more sustainable relationships, and just harness that crushy energy once in a while for flavor. So I have a lovely vacation home in Nerdsylvania, but I don’t spend enough time there that I could run for Congress or anything. But I think my emotional life is at its most intense when I can revisit old obsessions, or on the very rare occasions that I form new ones. (I think it’s like making current pop culture references -- I can still do it, but clearly not as naturally or effectively.)
Intensity isn’t always desirable, and on the whole I prefer my normal roster of emotions. But there’s something really powerful about doing that deep dive into an imaginary world -- which is really a deep dive into your own navel, but without all that annoying introspection. I have a lot of positive feelings in my normal life -- fondness, loyalty, good will -- but I rarely feel ardent. That’s not really a workaday emotion. Ardor is for special occasions... or for when something touches off the fuse on one of my favorite manias.So thanks, Anne McCaffrey, for helping to bestow on me the gift of obsession. I’m really glad I don’t have to use it every day. But I’m also glad to have it in the back of my closet, like an impractical party dress, or more accurately like Ben’s Batman costume from "Parks & Rec." (Oh yeah. Still got it.) My fourth-grade teacher may not thank you, but I do.
* Ugh, I know how this sounds and I'm really not trying to humblebrag. Yes, I was in some ways an "advanced" reader, for whatever that's worth (not a lot). Maybe someday I'll write "It Happened To Me: I Never Lived Up To My Child Genius Potential." Anyway, that was cool in some ways and lousy in others and generally does not make me special or extra-smart; I just wanted to be accurate about when my various obsessions kicked in.