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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Obsessions (& Numbers), but I Repeat Myself

So I have finally finished reading Moby Dick (yay, I know you are thinking, no more annoying page number updates). What I had always heard was a tale about Ahab's obsession with a particular white whale seems to be more Ishmael's obsession with whales in general. After all, which character could cite every court case in history involving whales? who knew a plethora of literary and historical references to whales from ancient times forward? who could describe the anatomy of every kind of leviathan, both inside and out?

Ahab's obsession was with revenge, not whales. And Melville's obsession, what was it about? Here's one of my favorite quotes from the book, and a clue to what I think Melville's obsession is: "And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar."

And my obsession, what is it that I should have finished this book after all?

I once read a quote about a writer with an obsession being the luckiest writer of all. Naturally I cannot locate that quote now that I want it, but instead I found a video clip from Big Think of John Irving answering a question about his own apparent obsession with bears and death.

Basically John Irving defends his use of bears as commonplace given his surroundings, and says his obsessions tend NOT to be about what HAS happened to him in his life, but what HASN'T, and what he fears WILL happen, his biggest FEARS, in fact. As Irving points out, you don't control your obsessions; by definition they control you.

And so I will now segue into one of my biggest obsessions: numbers (This will not surprise you, given how carefully I've kept track of which page number of Moby Dick I was on). I love to think about numbers, and recently I heard a podcast by Robert Krulwich (one of the hosts of my alltime favorite podcast, Radio Lab, though this particular podcast isn't a Radio Lab production, but a Krulwich Wonders piece.) In this clip he is interviewing  mathematician Alex Bellos, who is irked by always being asked what his favorite number is. (Here's the NPR blog if you prefer to read about it than listen to it.) So Bellos, like any good scientifically-minded person, decided to do a little research and set up a website asking, "What's your favourite number?" (using the British spelling because, well, you figure it out). Respondents also have to answer WHY a certain number is their favorite.

Here are a few interesting responses:

Because, says a 37-liker, "It looks mysterious, like a cloaked villain from a silent movie."

One person chose 17 because ... "It just seems like a colossal misfit. Many numbers, even some prime numbers, if they are not even, they still feel "round." Not 17, though. It's awkward and slightly difficult to deal with."

If you are interested in these responses, be sure to check out both the blog and the podcast, as they cite different examples of favorites with correspondingly convoluted reasonings. It turns out that most people have a preference for prime numbers (which I have to admit is a big factor in number-attractiveness for me), and there is a tendency to like one's own birthdate, but only for those born on  odd-numbered days, interestingly enough.

If you want to be part of this project, go to Bellos's website; he is still gathering data, and you can make sure your favorite number gets counted.

So, back to Moby Dick. I know some of you are wondering why I have gone on this tangent about numbers, when there is so much to discuss about Melville's masterpiece. Well, having just finished it last night, let's say I'm a bit overwhelmed. I find it easier right now to discuss numbers, infinite though they are. So the several of you who wrote to me saying you were interested in discussing Moby Dick once I had read it, please write in and direct us in some discourse.

My favorite numbers, by the way, are 19, 56, and pi.

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