in praise of oddballs

There’s a certain kind of person who has always fascinated me: the person with deeply eccentric interests who pursues those interests despite the indifference or hostility of others, and in the end makes a great success of it. An example: A. Wainwright. Wainwright was born and raised in Blackburn, Lancashire, but as a young man fell in love with the Lake District, and eventually contrived to move there. For much of the rest of his life he took every possible opportunity to walk the fells of Lakeland; and, as a man whose marriage was deeply unhappy, he had many such opportunities. The local bus service ferried him from trailhead to trailhead, and as he walked he often paused to sketch the terrain and draw his own maps.

Eventually he decided that he would write his own guides to the fells — but insisted on not just drawing all the maps vistas himself, but also on hand-writing all the text. In the end he produced a large collection of guidebooks filled with pages like this:


These guidebooks proved to be tremendously popular, and are still in print, even though they are outdated in many respects. (They are being revised and updated by a man who once worked with Wainwright.) Wainwright became so famous that other walkers would hail him on the fells, at which point — being grumpy, reclusive, and eccentric — he would turn away and pretend to be relieving himself on the trailside.

I have only been able to hike those fells a few times in my life, but each time I’ve taken the relevant Wainwright book with me. Even when they’re not quite right they’re useful and delightful.

But here’s my point: What in the world ever made Wainwright think that hand-written guidebooks were a good idea? He had to have been producing them primarily for himself, to scratch some deeply personal itch; he couldn't have envisioned an audience of more than a couple of dozen fellow eccentrics. And yet sales of his guides exceeded the million-copy mark when he was still alive.

It makes me wonder what I might have done with my life if I had heeded my inner promptings in the way that Wainwright did — if I had always read just what I wanted to read, and written just what I wanted to write, and did just what I wanted to do whenever I could manage it. I would probably be living under an overpass somewhere: the world rarely rewards its eccentrics in the way that it rewarded Wainwright. But I can't help thinking that we would be better off if more oddballs were as single-minded and indifferent to public opinion as Wainwright was — and if the rest of us were more attentive to what the oddballs are up to.