Character Studies
Mark Singer
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Buy *Character Studies: Encounters with the Curiously Obsessed* online

Character Studies: Encounters with the Curiously Obsessed
Mark Singer
Mariner Books
272 pages
September 2006
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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“The Curiously Obsessed” among us are some of the most fascinating people in the world. Mark Singer, long-time The New Yorker writer and author of Funny Money and other titles, certainly knows how to interview and to organize in-depth profiles of these unusual people.

There are a few wonderful features about Character Studies. For one thing, the subject matter captivates me. Life is far too full of homogenous people. Let’s hear it for eccentrics. As “they” say, life is stranger than fiction. At least sometimes.

Mark Singer says what his nine characters or groups have in common, as a whole, is “Their capacity for monomania and my own curiosity about how that is expressed.” Some of the profiles of Singer’s cast of characters – “The Book Eater”; Martin Scorsese(who never forgets anything); and long-time The New Yorker writer, Joe Mitchell – are first rate. “The Book Eater” is perhaps my favorite profile. This is a man worth knowing. Although Michael Zinman, a first-rate bibliophile, owns one of the world’s largest libraries of used books, primarily scholarly, even arcane, he also collects things as insignificant as pennies lying in the road. Driving on the New Jersey turnpike with Singer and a friend, Zinman had them stop at a tollbooth so he could run into the road and pick up a few cents. He spends the pennies or puts them in a variety of vessels around his house.

That said, I was somewhat disappointed in Character Studies. Stay with me. I am a regular reader of Character Studies and appreciate its in-depth profiles. What is better than reading tiny tidbits of people’s lives – people who live entirely different lives than we do, physically or emotionally? Yet not all of Singer’s nine profiles held my rapt attention as I had expected. I have three reasons for my opinion.

I was somewhat annoyed that Singer included very few women in this collection. In this day and age, I look for equal inclusion. Believe me, women are world-class eccentrics, too. Reason number two: Donald Trump is surely obsessed -- obsessed with money and with himself. But, as Singer knows, he is not an especially interesting – certainly not an empathetic – person (although he is a good golfer.) Singer says that Trump didn’t like this profile, and I empathize with Singer interviewing such a person.

The third reason why this book was not immensely, but rather, only somewhat satisfying is this: Singer has been writing for one of the top magazines in the world since 1974, and he chooses words and phrases for a college-educated, sophisticated audience. He is as obsessed with words as his characters are with books or magic tricks. However, at times, it feels as though Singer is showing off his huge vocabulary instead of drawing out his characters. “Froufrou” is great, but “orotund”?

Overall, I recommend Character Studies as solid, creative examples of the kind of profiles a gifted journalist can sketch. None of these people, with the possible exception of Trump, are bland. I also recommend, if you don’t already do so, looking at The New Yorker, for a continuation of these kinds of in-depth character studies by Singer and other extremely talented writers.

© 2005 by Deborah Straw for

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