English R1B

Reading and Composition: Obsession

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
4 Fall 2014 McWilliams, Ryan
MWF 3-4 225 Wheeler

Book List

Melville, Herman: Moby-Dick; Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita; Orlean, Susan: The Orchid Thief; Poe, Edgar Allan: The Essential Tales

Other Readings and Media

A course reader may include excerpts from Bill Brown, Sigmund Freud, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Henry James, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Michael Pollan, Thomas Pynchon, and others. We will also watch and discuss two or three films during the semester. 


This course will give you a framework to think (and write) more critically about the things you can’t stop thinking about anyway. Throughout the semester, we’ll pay attention to the role of monomania as a coping strategy for a world bewilderingly overburdened with significance. We will ask how and why the seemingly random or arbitrary interest—a flower, a particular girl, a sperm whale—consumes the attention of literary characters and readers. We will consider why certain objects, hobbies, and texts tend to cause monomaniacal absorption while others do not. We'll look into ways that obsessions have been theorized: as signs of madness, creative brilliance, or both; as addictions; as fixations, fetishes, and projections; as commodities, collections, and collations; and as “possessions” that own or inhabit us even while we think we control them.

Gradually, we will turn our attention to the question of academic obsession, asking what differentiates research from monomania. As we refine our own investigative projects, we will keep in mind Barbara Tuchman’s observation that “research is endlessly seductive, but writing is hard work.” Eventually, we'll use our insights into the nature of obsession to help manage the transition from investigation to application.

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