A Serious Hobby of the Third Kind

“…to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.”
– Susan Sontag, Where the Stress Falls
There is something not quite satisfactory about a grown man who does not have a serious hobby – I think it’s a bit like being on the wrong side of thirty without ever having been in a serious relationship. It isn’t illegal, clearly, in most parts of the civilized world – but when I come across such people, I sigh, I shake my head, I roll my eyes and I purse my lips: in short, I Look Askance. Is this a life well lived, I ask myself while doing all the above, is this not imprudent profligacy of the precious coinage of Time?

And then, of course, on the other hand, I know of those who launch giddily into multiple desultory dalliances, often simultaneously – I frown on their fickle frivolity. “So how’s the fossil-hunting?” “Oh, that was last year. I don’t do that any more. These days, I am totally into para-sailing.” Tut, tut, is what I say, deploring the modern inability to devote attention on a single subject for long enough.

Most people I know pursued their first hobbies in high school with all the ardour of hot-blooded youth, and while many of them have swapped their first loves for something more appropriate later in their lives, a lucky few have managed to live with the same overriding passion all their adult lives. I have even known people who realize, quite suddenly, in middle age, that what they had always maintained was nothing more than an pleasant way to pass the time has, over time, become considerably more serious than they had initially intended.

The relationship analogy can be extended even further without loss of argumentative validity. The name of both games is commitment. A serious hobby requires investment of time, effort and emotion. Like a woman or a jealous God, it demands personal sacrifice and periodic proof of undying loyalty, though it hands out no promises of return or reward. The sacrifice it seeks is not a calculated gambit, it is a leap of faith. And when sacrifice is involved, pain can’t be far behind.

In order for something to count as a SERIOUS hobby, pain HAS to be involved. There must be things given up, things that are important to you. If money is what your hobby guzzles, you must give up enough of it to hurt. If time is the substance of its sustenance, you must pull out every spare minute for the cause. If your mental and physical effort is the material it is made of, you must strain every sinew, shut out every other thought, get completely exhausted in the indulgence of the hobby.

Here’s a thumb-rule: if the feeling of satisfaction is not linked to what you have given up for it, it isn’t a serious hobby, merely a casual flirtation with no strings attached. The hobby is not The One for you – cut your losses and move on.

If all this sounds too difficult for you, there is an alternative. The next time someone asks you, “so, do you have any hobbies?”, you shake your head, look at your shoes and mumble, ‘no, can’t say i do.’ Or you can try suggesting, with a leer, that your hobby consists of looking for nacho crumbs in the folds of your belly while balancing a beer on it and lying on the couch watching TV. But you need a great deal of personality to carry that off, and if you dont have a hobby, you probably dont have much of a personality either. (sigh, shake head, roll eyes – you know the drill)

There are three types of serious hobbies. My hobby, reading, is of the third, and most problematic, type. Allow me to explain.

Serious Hobbies of the First Kind
I envy people who collect antique locks. Or who run the ultra-marathon. Or who fashion canoes out of oak trees. In a weird way, they dont need to DO much. Their hobby is so esoteric that it achieves cult status automatically. “What’s your hobby?” “Oh, I collect ancient Mesopotemian copper coins of the early Hammurabi period.” “Awesome! Can I come over and see them sometime?” “Here, look, I carry both of them in my wallet.” See what I mean? Quality renders quantity redundant, and that is the single characteristic that defines Serious Hobbies of the First Kind. Its like climbing the Everest. You dont need to do it every summer to call yourself a top mountaineer.

Serious Hobbies of the Second Kind
I also envy, albeit to a lesser degree, the hobbies where you can boggle minds with sheer numbers. You absolutely have to have the numbers if your avocation is more commonplace than the ones in the first category. If you collected stamps, for instance, you had better own a larger number of them than the kid next door. If you claim to play the piano, you had better know more than just the two tunes. If wine-tasting is your thing, you can’t just say “Oh I dont know, I just get wasted on whatever they happen to be handing out”. You’ve got to be able to name, in excruciating detail, all 120 varieties you’ve tasted since last July, and manage to weave into the story your recollection of that one Chateau Malescot St Exupery that you bumped into one summer day. This sort of serious hobby is all about a large number of different types of the same stuff; the ability to compartmentalize, categorize and classify to death is what it’s all about. Here, the quality is DEFINED by the quantity. It is also important to note that the numerical standards of excellence in this kind of hobby are commonly understood, objective, and indisputable.

Serious Hobbies of the Third Kind
Reading falls under the third and most tricky category, because in order for it to qualify as a serious hobby, one must have read a fair number of books, and a large number of them must ALSO be of some critically acclaimed quality. Moreover, exactly HOW many, and WHO sets the quality standards is left undefined, and the latter is hotly disputed as well. Ergo, every man fancies himself a reader : even those whose entire book-reading experience is restricted to the Letters-to-the-Editor section of Playboy. Are we all, then, readers? And if not, who is to lay down the guidelines? These difficult questions are exactly what make reading such a painful hobby to classify. In order to define the standards of this hobby, I believe we need to go beyond the usual enumeration or qualification of the Object collected, and describe it in terms of the behavior of the Hobbyist, instead.

I believe there are three broad stages involved in the transition of a hobby from frivolity to seriousness. The first step is when you derive satisfaction out of showing off to people who don’t share your hobby – cute girls in parties, colleagues around the water cooler, executives in job interviews. Maybe looking cool was the REASON you picked up the hobby in the first place. At some point, though, talking to laymen about your hobby begins to get embarrassing, because you are (by now) aware of the immense possibilities of the field, of your own limitations, and of the sheer effort it will take to explain your passion to someone who may not understand.

You then stop talking about your hobby except to those likely to offer good advice. This is Stage Two. You derive satisfaction from a word of encouragement from someone who should know, someone you look up to as member of an elite group who has attained levels to which you possibly do not even aspire. You stretch yourself hard with the objective of attaining membership to this august club. A passing nod of acknowledgement from one of Them would compensate for all the pain you’ve taken. The rest of the world doesn’t matter. Think of the fairly well-knit club of people who attend Crossword Puzzle or Trivia competitions regularly. Or who go mountain-biking on summer weekends. Or who attend play-readings with regularity.

The final step, of course, is when the only acknowledgement that matters comes from within you, and arises precisely from an acute awareness of the pain you’ve put yourself through to attain the goal you have set for yourself, and the satisfaction from the thought that the pain has been WORTH it, in some inexplicable way.

So, the driver for the first step is a need for universal attention and admiration, the second is a primal need to forge a common identity with a few like-minded people, and the third is a deeper understanding of one’s own identity and purpose in life, an understanding that is ultimately associated with a contemplation of one’s own mortality.

Mind you, these steps don’t necessarily have to correspond with how ‘good’ you are at the hobby. A guy who’s only collected a thousand stamps may SERIOUSLY derive intense satisfaction from it, while the kid who’s been gifted the entire USPS collection by a rich uncle may still be showing off to the chicks and is condemned to lifetime dilletantism.

So it is with reading, and so it is with me. I have clear opinions about which books I enjoy, and which books I believe are trash, and I have no intention of changing your mind for you if you disagree with me. The objective of this blog, which is going to be devoted to my book-reading obsession, is not evangelical; it is to record, largely for my own benefit, my thoughts and reactions to the books I read, in the manner of a diary. I hope you enjoy reading it, and that you will post comments that will point me to more books, and they, in their turn, to still other books, that I may read and love.

One lifetime is far too short. Memory, clarity of thought and the use of one’s sense organs are likely to fail even sooner. I am thirty-eight as I write this: life is using me up (as Borges says). I cannot conceivably read every book I would like to, in my lifetime; however, I intend to die trying…


§ 16 Responses to A Serious Hobby of the Third Kind

  • Lypeidode says:

    Stunning post, did not thought reading it was going to be so interesting when I saw your url!!

  • dschapman says:

    ‘At some point, though, talking to laymen about your hobby begins to get embarrassing, because you are (by now) aware of the immense possibilities of the field, of your own limitations, and of the sheer effort it will take to explain your passion to someone who may not understand.;

    very sharp insights… somewhat inspiring in a way. keep it up, old boy…

  • amtgrg says:

    Excellent post – makes me feel good about my hobby of the third kind – and less needful of having to justify the absence of the first or second 🙂

  • Yo PSri, now you have Garg and me chasing your posts. Go ahead, write another. We’ll wait.

    PS: I love your other followers. One dood has a german site with the word “sextoys” in it. Achtung! or Wilkommen, whatever.

  • Piyush Sharma says:

    Good post and blog. Can potentially help reduce the pain for others in search of good books. But than that may not be serious enough hobby (of the third kind)! whatever

  • Thanks for a marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you might be a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will come back later on. I want to encourage you to continue your great writing, have a nice weekend!

  • Lahar says:

    Is this PSri from Infosys? (Seeing that Gaurav Rastogi has posted, it must be!). I landed up here after Googling for ‘Zelebdim Echebar’ and have been reading ever since. Superb stuff!

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks, mate. Yes indeed it is. Hope all is well with you. And I am amused to discover that posting a question on Facebook Quizzers is a novel method for publicizing one’s blog! Admittedly ‘Zelebdim Echebar’ is possibly one of the few strings on Google that would yield my blog as a first page result.

  • Rex Ryan says:

    Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is an extremely well written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll certainly return.

  • Rex Ryan says:

    Great Example of a Premium WP Blog…

    […]to get an idea of different types of headers that people use in WordPress blogs[…]…

  • […] although they might guess… I’m a very Visual thinker. I have visual memory, Drawing was quite a serious hobby of mine as a child and to this day I?m fascinated with all things Visual – Sketchnotes, […]

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  • Robert Armstrong says:

    You spoke to my heart! And I could see the step process that you outlined. When computers first came out I had to have one no matter what it cost. I remember having to it eat rice a roni for two weeks because I spent 1700 dollars on my first computer in 1980. All my spare time was reading and trying different programs on my computer. Then in 1984 I got to the stage where I starting asking other computer users questions. I kept at it adding more knowledge spending all my free time on my now 3 computers and dedicating a bedroom to my hobby. To my wife’s frustration. Then in 1996 I started to teach others how to repair their computers. At this time my wife had a fit we had two children and a third was on the way. Up to this time the most money I ever earned in a year was 32000 dollars. My wife demanded that I either get a job working with computers and pay more attention to the family or get rid of my computer gear. At that moment I saw the light I started applying for jobs and doing interviews. After 3 weeks I landed a job with a company repairing computers at 37000 a year. One year later I was hired by Electronic Data Systems for 42000 a year, two years later I was making over 50000 a year. Over the next seven years even with the bad economy I was never without a job and my pay continued to rise to 72000 a year. I recently was offered a job for 83000 a year and rejected it because I would not get to work with computers full time.
    I have such a fundamental understanding of computer technology that I continue to get job offers even tho I have a job. All the time I spent in the early hands on days troubleshooting problems has paid off big time. But the great thing is I really love what I do and it’s still my hobby in my spare time. As of August 31st I retired from Hewlett Packard, however computers play a large role in my retirement hobby of astronomy.

    I volunteer at my children’s school as a technology consultant and many times it’s more rewarding then my paid gig.

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks for sharing that fascinating story, Robert – truly inspiring. It is fantastic that you were able to turn your passion into a paying career at least for a while, and now you have retired to something rewarding. I only dream of such a fate.
      And thanks as well for the kind words re: my post.

  • oregaknow108 says:

    the thoughts have surely resonated with many, and your articulation is commendable.
    fully concur with the “modern inability to devote attention on a single subject for long enough”.

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    Please note that I use the 'Rating' button on each post to rate MY experience while reading the book in question. If you have positive or negative opinions to express about the POST itself, please use the Comments section, or send me an email. Please do not use the rating button.

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