One of my favorite books is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, a biographical account of his absolute, all-consuming obsession with Arsenal, the English Premier League club. It’s one of the better insights into what it truly means to be a nerd that I’ve seen, for it speaks to the helplessness of it all. Hornby is literally trapped by his connection with the team. At one point he takes his then girlfriend to a match, where she faints, and he looks on while their friends take her to the hospital; he cannot leave the game, and is rewarded when Arsenal scores a goal. He reflects later:
Thirteen years later I am still ashamed of my unwillingness, my inability, to help, and the reason I feel ashamed is partly to do with the awareness that I haven’t changed a bit. I don’t want to look after anybody when I’m at a match; I am not capable of looking after anybody at a match. I am writing some nine hours before Arsenal play Benfica in the European Cup, the most important match at Highbury for years, and my partner will be with me: what happens if she keels over? Would I have the decency, the maturity, the common sense, to make sure that she was properly looked after? Or would I shove her limp body to one side, carry on screaming at the linesman, and hope that she is still breathing at the end of ninety minutes, always presuming, of course, that extra time and penalties are not required?
Now, I can say a number of things about that passage (and there are many others like it). The first is I wish I could write like that. The second is relief that I’m not quite at that point yet (though I worry I would come close when the Niners make the Super Bowl again, which likely won’t happen for another several decades, so I’ve got some years of anxiety-free time with my own as-yet-nonexistent partner to build up a store of forgiveness). The third is that these kinds of emotions make me understand why it is we feel so possessive of the things we like.
It’s emotional extrication like Hornby describes that leads music fans to swear off the Freelance Whales when their song suddenly serves as the soundtrack to a Starbucks commercial, or forces Giants fans to take time out from celebrating the first World Series victory in 56 years to moan about all the new bandwagon fans who didn’t know anyone on the team aside from Lincecum, Cain, and Brian Wilson’s beard, or makes Trekkies furious that any portion of the population now associates Captain Kirk with Chris Pine instead of William Shatner (or don’t get the joke about Admiral Archer’s prized beagle). To paraphrase Tyler Durden, it seems that we desperately want to own the things that own us, and jealously defend them against interlopers or casual appreciation.
I’m as guilty of it as anyone else: I loathed the Lord of the Rings movies when they first came out for the liberties Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh took with characters and plot (a quick list of the most egregious omissions/modifications: Tom Bombadil, the Elves at Helm’s Deep, the increased role of Merry/Pippin at Entmoot, Saruman’s death vs. the Scouring of the Shire, the utter destruction of Faramir as a meaningful character/echo of Aragorn). Those had been MY books for so long, MY stories, and MY mental conceptions of things that to see someone else’s version being accepted by millions of fans as more true than my own was revolting. I ignored everything that the movies did right (and they did a lot right) because I could not bear the thought of having to adapt something that I had loved for more than a decade to the new, shared vision.
To be frank, it was a stupid position to take, and it took my watching the Making Of clips on the Extended Edition DVDs to change it. The sheer amount of work, passion, and love for the material that the makers of those movies put in was inspiring, as was finally hearing the names Aragorn, Gandalf, Elendil, and Sauron used on the street, regularly and free of derision. New fans means that many more people with whom to enjoy your obsession. They may have started later than you, they may have foregone all the pain and suffering you felt in the darkest times (and rest assured I will be as jealous and bitter about all the brand new Niners fans who didn’t suffer through the Erickson and Nolan and Singletary years when the team gets decent again as anyone else), but everyone needs to start somewhere. There were fans before you, and there will be fans after you. The beauty of a thing like Arsenal is that it lasts and changes and morphs itself to suit new times and new people. It is not yours, even if you’re willing to let your partner lie unconscious on the floor for it.