Monday, August 23, 2010


I once wrote a newspaper profile about a guy who claimed to have personally imported about 80 percent of the species of tropical bamboo available in the United States. He was a hard fellow to reach, and once I finally got him to agree to an interview, I had to find his bamboo grove hidden in the subtropical scrub in South Florida. When I pulled up, the place looked deserted, but I figured I was in the right place because I was surrounded by towering stands of bamboo.

I honked a few times, and finally the man himself emerged from his octagonal house on stilts (no kidding). He reeked of weed and wore unlaced construction boots and a filthy white T-shirt. He talked about how his competitors had stolen all his best techniques for bamboo propagation, how he traveled through China and Asia, collecting rare tropical bamboo. He showed me where he had built his own USDA quarantine facility for newly introduced bamboo.

As we talked, he drove me around his property—and I was blown away. I fancy myself a little bit of a snob when it comes to tropical plants, but I'd never seen anything like this place. He had plants that weren't even named yet, in some cases, plants that were literally the only specimen of their kind in the Western Hemisphere. Giant green timber bamboos with stalks as thick as my leg. Glossy black bamboo with green pin striping. Blue bamboos. SIlvery green bamboos. Buddha bellies. Gold. Yellow.

One moment stood out. He had stopped his golf cart in front of a clump of rare black bamboos and was regarding the plants thoughtfully.

"I probably know as much about tropical bamboo as anyone in the United States," he said without a trace of arrogance. I got the feeling this wasn't something he bragged about. Rather, it was a piece of knowledge that he carried like a sack full of rocks. He was wistful and isolated all at once, because really, how could I have possibly understood?

Such is the nature of monomania, and I'm powerfully attracted to it.

There are two kind of monomania in books. Books about monomanical people, and books by monomaniacal people.

The first category is pretty much owned by Malcolm Gladwell nowadays, but Mary Roach makes some impressive forays into the land of the monomaniac, and Jon Krakauer has been circling that particular orb in pretty much every book. In his day, Herman Melville wrote perhaps the word's best novel about a monomaniac—in the process, penning my favorite book.

But I think the best books about monomania are the ones actually authored by the crazed lunatic who has devoted his or her life to an obscure mania. These books are like candy and I crave them. I have a book on artisan breadmaking that is so infused with the love of fresh, hand-made artisan loaves that flour virtually puffs from its pages. I have another on fern allies that could only have been written by a person who must be single and unfit for polite society. And I once spent months searching out a particular book on Szechuan cuisine because the book itself is a taste sensation to read, even if the dishes are beyond the reach of any Western cook.

It's no secret why I find myself so attracted to books about monomania—I envy people who have fully given themselves to their passions. I think it must be freeing to give yourself over completely to one corner of this wide world. It must be like a form of security.

One last story: when I was in seventh grade, I entered my butterfly collection in my school's science fair. Typical of seventh grade, I wasn't the only butterfly collection in the fair. But I'm not bragging to say there was no collection like mine. I had butterflies from thirty states. I had case upon case of carefully mounted and labeled butterflies. I'd pretty much lived with my net in hand every summer since fourth grade. I had devoured countless books and field guides on butterfly taxonomy and habitats. This was no throw-it-together on the weekend project—this was the organizing and stabilizing influence of my life at a time when things seemed unstable and disorganized.

Of course I won. Within a year, I'd hung up my net for good and moved onto other enthusiasms—each of which is reflected in my book collection to this day. In a very real sense, if you know my books, you know me.


Erica Orloff said...

Holy crap! You know, you are describing me. (Love those kinds of books). Did you see my blog post today? LOL!

And I, too, go through these intense phases. Like astronomy . . . I still LIKE astronomy. But for a while, that was my bedtime reading every night until my brain exploded.

I'm still obsessed with physics. Haven't outgrown it yet. And Paul Erdos. Talk about monomania!

E. Flanigan said...

OK, Jon .... so you "envy" people who give themselves over to their monomaniacal obsessions???? You don't feel you're already monomaniacal enough?

I shall only respond by directing you to one of your own blogs as monomania exhibit A:

I remind you that the tomato blog is not a WORK blog, it is a HOBBY blog. About tomatoes. How much more singularly focused do you hope to become? ;)

Kath Calarco said...

I'm blond. I reserve the right to be scattered. ;-)

Jon VanZile said...


Ha ha! I actually stopped from saying, "I like it because I AM one," but then my wife was like, "Um, did you not see yourself in here?! You're a complete monomaniac." But I don't consider myself a TRUE monomaniac because I tend to hop from thing to thing instead of spending my whole life in ONE thing.

And yeah, odd blog confluence. I actually wrote this last week ...

Jon VanZile said...


"About tomatoes. How much more singularly focused do you hope to become?"

Would it make a difference if I said I was adding hot peppers, lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers and strawberries to the garden this season? See, it's not like it's JUST tomatoes.

Jon VanZile said...


Ha ha! Maybe next time I'll do a post on blondes ... :)

Natasha Fondren said...

I think the only thing stopping me from being monomania-astic about story is Facebook and the desert, LOL. Writing and reading and watching story are really the only things I do. I skip showers and procrastinate nearly everything because I'm afraid to stop writing. Even when I workout, I read. When I relax, I go to movies. It's pretty lame. I get NERVOUS if I do something else--and even then, I make sure I can at least write about it... um, probably this is not monomania but clinical something, LOL!

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