“Search thou the ruling passion.” (Harry Tennant for Quartz)
IN DEFENSE OF HOBBIES
WRITTEN BY Alex Preston
As a child, I watched birds. While other boys threw themselves into communal sports or sealed lifelong friendships at sleepovers, I spent my weekends alone on the quaggy, wind-barracked reaches of South Coast estuaries, or dragging my long-suffering family around the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Arundel. I pursued birdwatching with the bloody single-mindedness that only a child can muster, and my life, and the lives of those around me, were shaped by my obsession.
Now, attempting to find a way to live as a thirty-something, no longer willing or able to indulge in the hedonistic follies of my twenties, birdwatching has again filled a hole in my existence. Whereas once I identified myself by what I did–my job–now I’m defined by a pursuit that is willfully unproductive.
I spend hours sitting in bird hides these days. Often I am alone; sometimes there are other birdwatchers there with whom to share brief, sublime moments of connection as a bird drifts into view, is identified, noted, and departs; once my daughter came with me, but was bored after 10 minutes, and I had to take her home. Then, alone again, I sat and watched as the hours crept by, until the day grew dark and I could go home. For me, birdwatching has provided the answer to a conundrum that haunts modern life: how to fill our days.
Our hobbies tell a great deal about us and our world: about how we choose to present our lives to others; about the burdensome, expectation-freighted nature of free time; about our slippery relationship with the exigencies of productivity in late-capitalist society. Hobbies are a corner of our existence over which we have the impression of control, a sphere in which we feel we can achieve a kind of mastery usually denied to us in our wider personal and professional lives. In All the Names, José Saramago says that hobbyists act out of “metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe, which is why, using their limited powers and with no divine help, they attempt to impose some order on the world.”
The history of the hobby
In 1899, the Norwegian-American social theorist Thorstein Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. In the book, he famously coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” but also outlined the development of the concept of leisure time. Leisure pursuits, Veblen argued, derived from models established in pre-Industrial societies, where the aristocracy chose economically unproductive professions and pastimes–warfare, hunting, religion, art–while the lower classes performed productive tasks–manufacturing and farming. With the burgeoning of the Victorian middle classes, conspicuous leisure became another form of social emulation, so that having a hobby–being deliberately unproductive–denoted elevated status.
Veblen also tracked the way that leisure time began to play a part in conceptions of identity. In the past, all but the aristocracy had defined themselves by what they did: “since labour is their recognized and accepted mode of life, they take some emulative pride in a reputation for efficiency in their work, this being often the only line of emulation that is open to them.” With one of the by-products of industrialization being free time for the growing middle classes to fill, people began to seek companionship and self-definition in their leisure pursuits. From identity being dictated by what a person produced, we began to conceive ourselves through pastimes which privileged the pleasure of production over the value of the product…