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Reading Is Not A Hobby

 “Reading is not a hobby. Find something else to do.”  

Those words, uttered on the phone by my boyfriend as I read to him an old backlist from seventh grade (including such titles as Gone With the Wind and the Oresteia) raised my defenses. Fortunately, he continued, “Reading is not a hobby, it is an extension of our existence.” I was convinced to go practice my guitar chords, which might have been his plan all along. 

Reading has defined me as a person since early middle school. As a classically educated student, great and whole books constituted the majority of my subject matter. In university, I pursued English and classics as a dual degree, and plan on beginning a master’s in English in the fall. If literature ever defined anyone, it’s probably me. Books from the Iliad to To the Lighthouse have consumed my time and passion—certainly to the detriment of any other hobbies. Reading was my job as a writer, my course as a student, and my personal past-time. There wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t reading, and despite that, I never seemed to make a dent in the list of stories I ought to encounter. The pile of waiting classics loomed, large and essentially untouched. I added hours and hours every day, leaving other hobbies I enjoyed by the wayside—knitting and quilting and photography—in order to finally tackle Camus or Kafka. I became competitive about reading. 

That simply isn’t how reading is supposed to be. In this article, therefore, I’d like to propose that thinking of reading as a hobby is damaging to the pursuit of well-roundedness and we are better served by thinking of it as an extension of being. A definition of “hobby” will be most useful to my argument in this article: the Oxford Dictionary understands it as “an activity done in leisure time for pleasure,” listing synonyms such as leisure activity or leisurely pursuit. The use of leisure in this definition is paramount: it is antithetical to reading as a part of the intellectual world, or classical world. 

The intellectual life, as generally understood in classical circles, is work. It involves the effort of truly engaging with the ideas and thoughts of the great Western canon and our common past. In no way is it leisurely; rather, it is great mental effort, and possibly the most important work one may embark upon. Herein then lies the first distinction I’d like to make: when I say reading is not a hobby, I am referring to this classical idea of reading. Firstly, this includes reading the great books: sitting down with a warm drink and Sarah J. Maas’ fantasy series is indeed a hobby because it demands nothing of you. You are simply wiling away the hours passively. Sarah Maas’ work holds no real value and all of her writing can simply be absorbed without deep thought. This is an enjoyable, easy way to spend your evenings. It is not, however, rewarding like finishing Anna Karenina or Mrs. Dalloway is. And to read these works requires of the audience dedication, commitment, and effort. If a hobby is an activity undertaken for leisure, then true reading cannot be considered a hobby. This is especially true for those of us who have found careers in the academic world. The lines between our work and our leisure blur if we consider reading to be both our “work” and our “hobby” and it detracts from well-rounded lives as individuals engaged in other pursuits. 

So, reading thus understood cannot be a hobby. Instead, I propose, it is an extension of our existence. In that, our identities as intellectual creatures give us an interest in reading and, properly ordered, a willingness to engage with literature. It is vital for our relationships with the four harmonies, with ourselves, the world, other people, and God, that we follow this inclination and consume the great works that have so shaped our cultures and civilisations. Without them, we cannot interact with anyone or anything. References to the Bible permeate all of artistic history; exposure to the Iliad is assumed in works from T.S. Eliot’s poetry to Maisie Peters’ The Good Witch album. Shared consciousness of society is found in the great works of literature and Western history. We need to be aware of and interact with this, and this involves the work of reading the Western canon. 

Truly reading may pass the time, but it is certainly not a past-time like any other hobby. And because it demands so much of us, we cannot devote the entirety of our free time to it, the way I used to do. Sure, I read a whole lot more than I do now, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the plot of Gone With the Wind anymore. I had read it, but I had not grasped it. I treated reading far too much like a hobby, and not nearly enough like work.  

Devote time to reading, of course. The classics ought to be enjoyed. But make sure to dedicate time to actual hobbies that do not exercise your mental faculties with such rigour: garden, paint, knit, sew, take photographs, go on walks…There is much to enjoy and to explore in our wonderful world besides reading. 

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