Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Obsessions and Rules

This weekend my mother gave me The Rule of Four. I read it in three days, entranced by the visions of Princeton campus life and the unfolding drama about academic intrigue and Renaissance puzzles. But what really struck me about this book was the portrayal of obsession. Most of the obsession is over a single book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Some of the characters regard this book as their ticket to academic stardom. Others see it as a yardstick of intellectual might, proving themselves against its puzzles. And some are just plain obsessed, the sign of an addictive personality that could pick anything for its obsession. Relationships are strained and/or broken through this addiction, which is as destructive as any drug or alcohol abuse.

I’ve fought my own obsessions with books, computer games, and blogs or Usenet groups. Like any addict, I find it very difficult to stop at only one, to manage my time so I nurture my personal and professional relationships. While I was writing my dissertation, I had to give all my computer games, especially Civilization II, to my wife to hide, so I wouldn’t be distracted. I give myself strict rations on entertainment reading, though I still will stay up far too late or ignore work and family when I’m in a reading groove. I completely gave up my Usenet group over a year ago, because I was spending too much work time at it and because the political environment was very pro-war. However, this was a time-neutral action, as I started reading blogs instead. I got blog-reading under control by starting my own blog with a professional bent. Now when I am blogging, I am usually thinking about my discipline, formulating thoughts for my teaching and research. I have noticed that I find it easier to put down books or games now that I am a father. Perhaps obsession does mellow with maturity.

I highly recommend this book. It is very well written, maintaining a realism in plot and character-realization. There are many suspenseful moments at a variety of levels: murder, solving puzzles, managing relationships, and fulfilling graduation requirements. Not for the faint of heart!

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