The tyranny of having a hobby

I have a friend who birdwatches. She doesn’t call it birdwatching — she calls it “looking at birds and then ticking them off in my bird book” — but that is what it is, and she’s been doing it for 20 years. A family friend gave her the book for her 10th birthday with a note saying that she seemed like a person who really loved the natural world and had a great appreciation for the living creatures around her, particularly the birds. The note, she says, was crucial. By being anointed as the type of kid who loves birds, she immediately became one, feeling sure that the friend had identified an innate quality she hadn’t yet figured out for herself.

She has a good time with it. She looks at birds and thinks about them and, if you ask her why she likes doing this, will say things like “Well, birds are God’s most magical creatures.”

I have another friend who knits. She started doing it while studying for her finals, needing an activity distinct from reading all day, and now she is a person who can knit. Her family buys her nice wool for her birthday, correctly anticipating that she will make something for them with it, and she is currently at the level of being able to knit gloves. She likes it, she says, because it occupies her hands, it’s satisfying, and it has an astonishingly impressive impact on the sorts of people for whom being able to knit gloves is as out of reach as being able to walk through walls.

Another friend plays bridge. He got seriously into it during lockdown, to the extent of alienating at least one of his bridge partners with his fanaticism, and now owns two copies of The Right Way to Play Bridge.

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As a term, “hobby” has always been of debatable meaning, more easily understood by negation. Ask someone what they think a hobby is, and you’ll get a paraphrase of the dictionary definition that they will have just looked up on their phone and, then, a passionate disquisition on all of the activities and interests that can under no circumstances be categorised as hobbies, per their own highly idiosyncratic and inflexible standards.

Being online is not a hobby, apparently, nor is reading or listening to music. Going to the pub isn’t a hobby, nor is going to the cinema. Surfing isn’t a hobby, according to my dad (it’s a passion), neither is going to the hardware store and then the dump every Saturday morning for the entirety of your kids’ childhoods (rather, it’s a periodic treat you have access to when you are a dad).

Most activities related to food, travel, exercise or finance are not hobbies, according to my friends and loved ones, and a search I did on Twitter, where I also found hundreds of people sternly pointing out that being the prime minister of the UK is “not a hobby”. Neither is drawing a salary, going to Disney World, being a parent, “sweating iron and bleeding protein”, watching Netflix until 2am, owning a cat, being a sports fan or being a bitch. In the corners of Twitter where “because of late capitalism” is considered a plausible explanation for most behaviours and circumstances, there is in fact no such thing as a hobby any more. It’s been stolen from us by hustle culture, apparently.

Hardly anyone knows what a hobby is, and this is particularly the case now that so many of us spend our leisure time online arguing about precisely these sorts of basic definitions with people, as the writer Max Read put it in an essay on Richard Seymour’s book The Twittering Machine, “to whom the world has been created anew every morning, people for whom every settled sociological, scientific, and political argument of modernity must be rehashed, rewritten, and re-accounted, this time with their participation.” You can’t get to the bottom of what a hobby is if you are spending all your spare time disputing first principles on Twitter.

Even taking these difficulties into account, however, it seems obvious that birdwatching, knitting and playing bridge are classic adult hobbies, the kinds of activities you would adopt if you were an alien trying to pass as a believable human being. They are absorbing, enjoyable, nonremunerative, can be mastered but are resistant to professionalisation, involve practice and reward diligence, and they grant immediate passage into a world full of others with the same interests, knitting woolly octopuses for premature babies and making unforgiving observations about the wrong way to play bridge.

They are the sorts of pursuits advice columnists have in mind when people write in about the lack of balance in their lives or sad feelings in general. It’s interesting, then, that not one of my three clearly hobby-having friends would admit to the practice upfront, backing away from the label for reasons that were as startling to me as finding out that someone I know can knit gloves.

They worried that their hobbies, these things that give them pleasure and keep them far from the computer, made them seem like they had too much leisure time and too few inner resources that would enable them to naturally stave off boredom, or else fixed distressingly in their ways in the manner of very old people. All three of these friends are fully paid-up members of society, with busy lives, fulfilling interpersonal relationships and, again, interests that make them happy. It’s just that hobbies have an undeservedly bad reputation, one made worse by the internet, like everything else.

The birdwatcher said the problem with having a hobby was that it made people seem like they were spinning their wheels on this earth, darting from one randomly chosen pursuit to another, contributing nothing and learning nothing while “waiting to die”. In stark contrast, the bridge player said the concern was that a hobby was a “terminal interest” that a person would be stuck with during the lengthy interim in which they were hanging around waiting to die. The knitter said that she personally associated hobbies with having no friends and no idea of what normal people do to have fun, and the birdwatcher and the bridge player broadly agreed with this assessment.

A vague sense of embarrassment attended their explanations of their hobbies and why they enjoyed them. They paused to tell me they were all too aware of the sourly negative connotations, that they knew these enriching and wholesome pursuits meant being associated with figures such as Jean des Esseintes, the excruciatingly refined aesthete in Against Nature, who hires a lapidary to embed precious stones into the gold-plated shell of his tortoise so that it may enrich the appearance of the Persian rug it walks around on, or else someone you see on a bus reading Buses Magazine, with a DVD copy of Great British Buses in a plastic bag nestled near his ankles, which are exposed to the bus air due to the sad-making shortness of his stiff, flammable trousers.

Listening to them talk shamefacedly about their hobbies, I thought of the bit in Charles Portis’s Gringos when Wade Watson, the government clerk who writes science-fiction in his spare time, is giving an account of himself: “Other hobbies? Well, I enjoy certain light operas. I play polka tunes on the concertina for my own amusement and for the entertainment of my friends. And yes, I am a student of the great Maya civilisation, but that is not invariably a sign of madness.”

Perhaps as a result of all this negativity and prompting of anxious self-examination among people who just want to do a puzzle from time to time, just want to look at a wonderful bird and tick it off in their lovingly dog-eared book, there has been an attempt in recent years to rehabilitate hobbies as a concept, eliminating the sense of dilettantish triviality and/or dour weirdness that seems to hover over them, and demanding that they be taken seriously.

Not taken seriously in the way you’ll see expressed in trade magazines about miniatures, for instance, where makers of tiny realistic fruit for tiny realistic kitchen tables will give earnest interviews about their self-described obsession, and the answer to questions such as “Why spend days hunched over your craft table making a miniature sloth crawling up the side of a pair of tweezers?” is never given because, for the readers of these magazines, the answer is obvious. Rather, hobbies are being explicitly presented as forms of self-care with the potential to radically overhaul your life.

It’s been swinging this way for a while. There have been memoirs about lives changed by houseplants and allotments, cold-water swimming as a cure for heartbreak, crafting as a cure for insanity, crafting as a lifesaver, chainsaw mindfulness, birdwatching as therapy, birdwatching as cure for heartbreak and knitting as tool of power. Call it an overcorrection.

These sorts of framings are not necessarily new, but the collective effort to elevate hobbies from “things that you do because you like them” to “things that you do because they will save your life/sanity/marriage” seems to have truly got under way during the pandemic. This is hardly surprising. People fell upon hobbies with desperation during lockdown, becoming serious about fermenting and online drawing lessons and whatever else might speed up the horrible crawl of the hours, please God.

They did these things, and then they posted about them on social media, adopting the same sort of tone employed in the memoirs about beekeeping and raising chickens as higher forms of meditation, or gardening as a form of radicalism. The style of these posts is often grave, humourless, almost religious in register and highly didactic. Hobbies are something that you do because you must, carving out a sacred space for yourself in a burning world.

In this line of thinking, failure to take your hobby seriously means failure to understand that absolutely everything is serious now. Doing something frivolous means that you yourself are frivolous, and so the thing to do is to reposition the activity as a necessity, as a lifeline, as an act of commendable courage.

Fun doesn’t enter it very much, as far as I can see. Doing something because you like it and it passes the time is fine, certainly, but wouldn’t it be better if you did it because it changed your life? Wouldn’t you like to talk in a quavering voice about the holiness of the light shining down on the polished gleam of the woodworking table, every deliberate movement of your steady hand suffused with a purpose unattainable to most?

This form of self-presentation has something in common with the “I can’t stop thinking about this” register, recently identified in The New Yorker as “the coyote howl of social media”, whereby someone online claims to be incapable of tearing their thoughts away from a mildly sassy and obviously scripted exchange between two very famous film stars on a publicity tour, or a blurry photograph of someone in weird jeans at the grocery store, or an explanation from Wikipedia about why a tomato cannot be classified as a fruit, or whatever it is that the person has just seen or read.

It’s not enough to be briefly arrested by a map purporting to explain why Swedes don’t give people food when they come to visit. Instead, you must be staring at the ceiling thinking about it at 4am, painfully attuned to the strangeness of the world, a delicately raw nerve.

Similarly, it’s not enough just to sit around knitting for a while, feeling somewhat at rest, on the way to finishing an unattractive scarf. It has to be that the act of knitting has been your salvation, a crucial bit of narrative scaffolding in the endlessly told story of yourself. This is too much pressure, I think, as well as being a good reason to abandon your scarf halfway through because knitting is not providing a sense of contentment that will give you the fortitude to heal the rift with your sister.

Is there anything to be said for lowering the stakes a bit? Could be fun.

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