Obsession and the joy of iterative projects
Also 9,100 fantastic words on Metallica
I love it when people get obsessed with a topic and then turn that obsession into an iterative project where they do the same thing over and over until the topic has nothing left to give. An example: my friend Dave watches sci-fi movies hundreds of times and obsesses about the typography for his blog Typeset in the Future. I think his post on Alien is my favorite:
The opening credits for Alien are nothing short of a typographic masterpiece. You can watch them in their entirety on the Art Of The Title web site, but here’s the general gist: a slow, progressive disclosure of a disjointed, customized Futura reveals the movie’s central theme over 90 seconds of beautifully-spaced angular lettering.
Dave’s book is also amazing and you should buy it.
In following every rabbit hole of his obsession with the film through to its end, Monson creates a book that is truly one-of-a-kind—not just a dose of nostalgia for movie buffs, but a revelatory investigation for anyone who’s ever really loved a singular piece of culture, enough that it got tangled inextricably in their identity and could never quite be excised. In Monson’s own words: “I believe that if you look long and hard enough at what you loved best at fourteen and how you lived then and what you saw in the world, it will reveal both the world and you.” As the pages turn, a question inevitably arises: What have you loved in the way that Monson loves Predator? And, for better or worse, how has it made you who you are?
Yesterday Monson published an essay about a similar project: Sean T. Collins’s “Pain Don’t Hurt”, an out-of-print book of 365 essays about the movie Road House (you can read every essay on his website). Monson starts off by calling this a “bad idea essay”, and if anyone is qualified to say that, it’s the guy who watched Predator 146 times. But he goes on to say this:
The reason I love bad idea essays is not because they seem dumb or bad but that they’re hard. Anyone can write a good idea essay. But only a real pro—or a real fool, and it’s hard to tell which you are when you start one, which is the entirety of the stakes of the bad idea essay—can write a bad idea to its exhaustion/completion. Only after exhausting yourself will you see if it was worth it.
But it’s these paragraphs that really get to the heart of the matter for me:
365 essays about Road House is an idiotic thing, and its idiocy is part of its appeal. I am often moved by iterative projects, because in repeating an action every day or every week or every year you make time a subject. […]
The reason I love iterative projects is that the plot is inevitably the movement of the mind (or the life or the body) through time. Every piece is a technical problem: oh shit, what am I going to do today? And the technical problem just gets harder as it goes deeper: How can I not bore myself on essay 241?
The reason projects like these are so appealing to me is two-fold. One, there is The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything:
Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn't have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I'm supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn't get to.”
Two, if we agree that we’re going to miss almost everything, there is a certain beauty in picking a small number of things you want to know everything about, and then sharing that with those around you. We know from the African philosophy of Ubuntu that “I am because we are”, or:
Humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am.
One of the most tangible ways we can “owe humanity to each other” is by crawling deep into the corners of a specific topic and picking out the best pieces of it for the people around us. It’s saying, “I know we’re going to miss almost everything, but on this thing I got you. I’ll go deep so you don’t have to, and I’ll share what I learn so we can both enjoy what makes it special.”
Maybe this is something for all of us to think about as we head into 2023. What are you obsessed with that seems so niche that surely no one else would care? I’ll say this: if someone can write a fascinating book about watching Predator, I guarantee that your “bad idea essay” is probably actually a really good idea for an iterative project. I, for one, would love to read it.
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Some stray links
🎓 Fascinating profile of Maria Montessori. “The radical idea at the heart of Montessori’s method was not that children learn by play but that adults prevent them from learning by interrupting them.”
🤘 Here’s 9,100 words on Metallica that’s absolutely worth your time. “Though the band has made adjustments to its sound through the years—some minor, some seismic, all irritating to certain subsets of its fan base—it’s hard to think of another act that has outlasted the whims of the culture with such vigor.”
👩⚕️ Be wary of telehealth sites. “Quick, online access to medications often comes with a hidden cost for patients: Virtual care websites were leaking sensitive medical information they collect to the world’s largest advertising platforms.”
📱This week’s useful app → Pika is a neat web app for creating mockups from screenshots.
🤨 This week’s WTF link → The $949 price for Dyson’s air-purifying headphones is more absurd than the device itself. I really don’t know what to say about this one.
👴 This week’s Gen X link → I’m not really a podcast person, but over the weekend I needed to listen to something as far away from all of this as possible. And oh my, even though the intro is kinda weird the “Ice Ice Baby” episode of “60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s” is just fantastic.