“…to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.”– Susan Sontag, Where the Stress Falls
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…