*Stares unblinkingly*
May 12, 2015 12:27 PM   Subscribe

I just realized that I really enjoy stories -- both fiction and nonfiction, and across all media and genres (movies, books, journalism, etc) -- about or featuring extremely focused people. Whether dedicated, pared-down, driven, or even obsessive, sympathetic or sinister, they fascinate me. (Examples inside.) I'd love recommendations for stories, articles, and other materials about people like this:

The Isaac de Bankole character in The Limits of Control, who never seems to sleep and looks at everything as though gazing at a painting. Ram Charan (PDF), a management consultant who doesn't live anywhere, maintaining a 365-day-a-year travel schedule with cardboard boxes of supplies sent by assistants he's never met. Gavin Polone, a TV producer who functions like a misanthropic astronaut, to the exclusion of almost everything we'd think of as everyday life.

I'm always fascinated by people, or characters, who are extremists, and there's something really compelling about utterly focused individuals (for better or worse). Can you recommend more?
posted by deathmarch to epistemic closure to Grab Bag (49 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster?
posted by czytm at 12:30 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

You would probably like The Martian (really, I think everyone would like The Martian). His singularity of focus is based upon necessity, but it's pretty fascinating nonetheless.
posted by something something at 12:33 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
posted by katie at 12:35 PM on May 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you don't mind a wee bit o' fluff, you might like the Don Tillman series.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 12:41 PM on May 12, 2015

Special Agent Pendergast fits this character profile and is the center of a series of highly entertaining books.
posted by phunniemee at 12:44 PM on May 12, 2015

Sherlock Holmes?
posted by SemiSalt at 12:53 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

The character Saga Noren in the Danish TV series The Bridge (Bron/Broen). If you've never seen it, you are in for a treat--it's excellent.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:58 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

A Deepness In The Sky, has a group of people who've been purposely infected with a disease that allows them to concentrate to a nearly inhuman degree, this is called 'focus'. It's a truly excellent book.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:00 PM on May 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Zero Effect?
posted by fullerine at 1:13 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Knick's Dr. Thackeray fits this description. It's also a crazy-good show.
posted by np312 at 1:28 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Julia Child's (non-cooking) books! There's My Life In France and a collection of letters, As Always, Julia. Maybe some others, in which case I want to read them too.
posted by mskyle at 1:29 PM on May 12, 2015

The Quiet Girl by Peter Hoeg

Actually, anything by Peter Hoeg
posted by myselfasme at 1:31 PM on May 12, 2015

John Le Carre's character George Smiley comes to mind. I recommend the "Karla-trilogy", beginning with "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy".
posted by Petersondub at 1:39 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Up In the Air
The Rosie Project
posted by carmel at 1:42 PM on May 12, 2015

The Wind Rises
posted by mymbleth at 1:43 PM on May 12, 2015

There's a really good collection of essays by Laurence Gonzales called The Still Point that includes profiles of all sorts of intense people: a heart transplant surgeon; drug addicts; doctors who are drug addicts; maximum-security prisoners and their guards; stunt pilots; a high-performance auto racing team; David Carradine.

Also check out Jon Ronson's stuff.
posted by generalist at 1:52 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder.

Perhaps also the novels of Nevil Shute. Many, perhaps most, have a theme of one man making a difference.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:52 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just about anything about race car drivers. The really good drivers can maintain this kind of superhuman focus for a few laps and qualify on the pole position. The great ones do the same thing for a whole race.

Senna is a good documentary about one of the greatest drivers of all time. The more recent Rush is biographical and it probably a better example of the focus/obsession aspects you're looking for.

I've never seen Le Mans (a problem I'm now reminded that I need to rectify) but it's often pointed to as THE movie about the annual 24-Hours of Le Mans endurance race. It's technically fiction but only just.
posted by VTX at 2:07 PM on May 12, 2015

It's pretty silly socially anxious nerd wish fulfilment (if I just took a pill, I could totally focus and all the ladeeze would understand me. Also I'd know kung fu! And Italian!), but Limitless has a pretty cool few scenes depicting extreme focus.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:08 PM on May 12, 2015

Serge A. Storms is your guy.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 2:14 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination is about Gully Foyle's single-minded, albeit circuitous, quest for revenge.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 2:23 PM on May 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

The Devil Wears Prada. The book is pretty good too.
posted by Melismata at 2:25 PM on May 12, 2015

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder -- about Paul Farmer, the founder of global health agency Partners in Heath.
posted by spindrifter at 2:48 PM on May 12, 2015

The Children's Act, by Ian McEwan. The female judge depicted is very singleminded.
posted by bearwife at 2:52 PM on May 12, 2015

You may also enjoy reading the TV Tropes entry for The Determinator.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:57 PM on May 12, 2015

The Signature of All Things, for Alma's interest in mosses. Gilbert does a wonderful job of making the reader feel her fascination.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:06 PM on May 12, 2015

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and the article/book The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert. Also, a couple of the essays in John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead - Unnamed Caves and Unknown Bards, which might also be available online.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 3:14 PM on May 12, 2015

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers about the famous itinerant mathematician Paul Erdös.
posted by q9f9A at 3:38 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Monster Road is an interesting doc about Bruce Bickford, who spends most of his free time holed up in a basement creating stop motion clay animation.

Crumb is along the same lines (obsession, pared with a crazy work ethic).
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:16 PM on May 12, 2015

Marwencol is basically the Platonic ideal of an obsession.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 5:26 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Machiavelli. The Prince.
posted by sexyrobot at 5:35 PM on May 12, 2015

I think a number of John McPhee's profiles would fit, but the specific one that springs to mind is Brigade de Cuisine, included in the collection Giving Good Weight:
PROFILE of the owner-chef of a sort of farmhouse-inn less than 100 miles from N.Y.C., where superb food is served. He asked that the writer not give his name, the name of the restaurant nor its location. ... His capacity is 55 guests, but he usually cooks for less than 40. His work is never static - dishes change constantly. He has a basic repertory of roughly 600 appetizers and entrees.
posted by kristi at 6:07 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding VTX's recommendation of Rush. Daniel Brühl's portrayal of Niki Lauda is superb.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 6:13 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Last Samurai!
posted by ferret branca at 6:38 PM on May 12, 2015

In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes are numerous British television dramas about obsessive detectives (and the ultimate Sherlock Holmes that I think you might very much enjoy is the fantastic series with Jeremy Brett). Some that I've enjoyed lately with this setup include Endeavour, Whitechapel, and Broadchurch.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:01 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Couple of Werner Herzog's movies come to mind: "Aguirre, The Wrath of God", and "Fitzcarraldo". Klause Kinski starred in both films, and they don't get more intense than Kinski.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 7:23 PM on May 12, 2015

Other foreign movies with intense main characters: "Revanche", "The Maid", "The Island" (Russian movie), and "Gigante"
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 7:30 PM on May 12, 2015

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pattern_Recognition_%28novel%29 The central character is quite driven.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longitude_%28book%29 About John Harrison and his development of chronometers unparalleled for their time.
posted by nickggully at 7:56 PM on May 12, 2015

"Grizzly Man" - also, "Tabloid," an Errol Morris film about the beauty queen who kidnapped a Mormon missionary. Another Morris film: "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" and "Mr. Death".
posted by mmiddle at 8:27 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh and check out the (now ex-) artist Tehching Hsieh:

...For one year, from 11 April 1980 through 11 April 1981, Hsieh punched a time clock every hour on the hour...

... from 26 September 1981 through 26 September 1982, Hsieh spent one year outside, not entering buildings or shelter of any sort, including cars, trains, airplanes, boats, or tents...

posted by generalist at 8:31 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

The first thing I thought of was Jack Reacher. He's not obsessively devoted to a single interest or hobby the way some of the other suggestions have been, but he somehow fits the bill with his pared-down, wandering existence. He has no possessions apart from the clothes he's wearing and a folding toothbrush and ATM card, wanders wherever he feels like it, stays as long as he wants. The books always feature him getting caught up in some kind of trouble and yet he brings a kind of clear-headed focus to it: he never gets distracted by pointless worrying, can somehow perceive the complexities of situations in a very simple and focused way, decide what to do and act with very little fuss and bother. Even the style of writing is simple and pared back; no page-long sentences. I know they are totally unrealistic in many ways, but I find them a pleasant palate-cleanser to read from time to time.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:31 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre is like this.
posted by prewar lemonade at 9:02 PM on May 12, 2015

I haven't read it, but "Flow," a pop-psych book by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Me-hi-yee Chik-sent-me-hi-yee, or something like that), the Hungarian Psychologist who coined that term for the kind of energized focus or "zone" that one enters when working on things.

A fellow mefite gave me a lukewarm recommendation for the book after it was mentioned on a 2001 episode of WBEZ/PRI's This American Life, "192: Meet the Pros."
posted by Sunburnt at 9:09 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

What Makes Sammy Run?
posted by neat graffitist at 3:50 AM on May 13, 2015

Ancillary Justice has this.
posted by Aizkolari at 3:44 PM on May 13, 2015

"Dolan's Cadillac" by Stephen King is one of the most insane, terrifying, and well-written short stories of focused dedication I have ever encountered. Scrawny unassuming man's beloved wife (she is a teacher) is murdered by an incredibly wealthy criminal (I believe she was about to testify against him). He embarks on the most diabolically genius (yet believable) plan to avenge her murder, without drawing a hint of suspicion, which involves obsessive dedication. Fiction at it's best and a must read. You will find it in his book Nightmares and Dreamscapes.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 5:48 PM on May 13, 2015

I can't believe no one's mentioned Roald Dahl's wonderful story story, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:26 AM on May 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

The movie "Now You See Me".

I'm struggling to justify the suggestion without spoilers because you don't really realize how dedicated a certain character is until the very end. Then you'll see that character in a slightly different light on 2nd viewing.
posted by VTX at 10:12 AM on May 14, 2015

I was just reminded of The Great Passage (which isn't as whimsical as this trailer makes it seem).
posted by wintersweet at 1:55 PM on May 17, 2015

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