Obsessives… and the rest of us

Melvil Dewey's Decimal System
Melvil Dewey’s Decimal System (Photo credit: Klara Kim)

At a recent Commonwealth Club event author Josh Kendall talked about his eponymous book on American obsessives and the seven builders-&-shakers on whom his spotlight shines. It is a spotlight of ambivalence. Kendall is talking about the likes of Melvil Dewey (who thought so obsessively in ten’s that we can now thank him for the Dewey decimal system, libraries, things like that.) Or Steve Jobs, who was prone to call in the scrubbers if a speck of dirt got on his white floors — but meanwhile was busy creating technological wonders. Or Charles Lindbergh, famous aviator and serial womanizer.

The talk made me feel a little better about the less famous among us. Being mildly obsessed with reproductive rights myself, I am inexpressibly grateful for the likes of Gloria Steinem, or Cecile Richards or Terry O’Neill. But investing one’s gifts and energies in a cause seems to be far less hazardous — to oneself as well as loved ones and everybody else — than the traditional path of the obsessive super-achiever.

Kendall’s super-achievers (the others he chose to study are Thomas Jefferson, Ted Williams, Henry Heinz and — it was reportedly hard to find a woman — Estee Lauder) were not just difficult, he maintains, but mentally ill. In an article for Slate titled “Madness Made Them Great,” he wrote that his subjects had “occasional bouts with depression, but they primarily suffered (or benefited) from another form of mental illness: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.”

You can obsess about a cause or a project and still be a great parent or a welcome dinner guest; once you get to the level of OCPD evidenced by Kendall’s subjects — who make for a fascinating book, by the way — you’re making a mark on history, but driving your families and friends nuts.

In other words, obsessives create a lot of good stuff but you probably don’t want to marry one.