Big fish's tales draw the crowds

Sociologist author in a small pond celebrates the overlooked heroes. Matthew Reisz writes

November 10, 2011

As an academic expert in two specialist fields - heavy metal and the Anglo-Jewish community - Keith Kahn-Harris knows what it feels like to be a big fish in a small pond.

Although he has always wanted to be the best at something, he has come to realise he is no genius and sometimes tells people that his achievements as a sociologist rank up there with being "the best waterskier in Luxembourg". And that set him wondering a few months ago: just who is the best waterskier in Luxembourg?

An honorary research Fellow and associate lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London who also teaches for The Open University, Dr Kahn-Harris has long wanted to write serious non-fiction for a general audience.

He therefore composed a synopsis for a book entitled The Best Water Skier in Luxembourg: Tales of Big Fish in Small Ponds and solicited funds from would-be readers via Unbound, a "crowd-funding" website. A month later, he was on a lake near Bournemouth filming a video to attract sponsors.

The first chapter is now funded, and two trips to Luxembourg planned. Those who have donated £10 will receive a hand-written postcard, a souvenir and the finished 10,000-word e-chapter.

Contributors who give £150 will, in addition, be invited to his house for a slide show and a meal of Luxembourg specialities.

If all goes well, he will seek further contributions and support from tourist boards for research trips to find other little-known legends including the top bassoonist in Finland, the most powerful politician on St Helena, the greatest living Surinamese novelist and the greatest living expert on Cornish.

Faber and Faber has agreed to publish the finished volume in association with Unbound.

Although Dr Kahn-Harris has never waterskied or been to Luxembourg, and has acquired only half a dozen words in the national language of Letzebuergesch, he is thrilled by the idea of "becoming an expert in something I know absolutely nothing about, just like when I was a stranger studying the Israeli heavy metal scene for my PhD. As soon as I'd found there was a Luxembourg waterskiing federation, that was enough for me."

Yet he also sees the project as a form of "stealth sociology, using a light-hearted framework to discuss some serious stuff. I'm interested in the politics of small worlds - many of them riven by factionalism - and how people pursue excellence, and find meaning and pleasure and community within them. I want to celebrate the overlooked heroes - to celebrate and not to mock."

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