The Magazine

It's Only a Hobby

Joseph Epstein, hobbyless.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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I recently went to a new physician, a dermatologist, for a minor problem, but before seeing her, I had to fill out a longish form setting out my and my parents' medical history. All went smoothly enough until the very last question, which asked about my hobbies. I was frankly stumped. I have no hobbies, yet, chary of leaving the space blank, I wrote in "Cultivating and collecting grievances."

The absence of hobbies from my life, let me quickly assert, is not among these grievances. I never had a hobby, don't have one now, and the notion of finding a suitable hobby has never occurred to me.

The closest I have come is early in the 1950s, when I owned an extraordinarily comfortable pair of trousers known as hobby jeans. Light blue, soft cotton with a thick elastic waistband, they were essentially pajamas that could be worn on the street. Wearing them, I don't recall anyone asking me if he could see my butterfly collection.

In grammar school many of my classmates had hobbies and collections. Some boys had large collections of marbles, or "mibs," as we called them. A few kids had stamp collections. A store opened in our neighborhood called Hobby Models, which sold kits for making model airplanes, electric trains and the rich collection of paraphernalia that went with them, battery-driven racing cars, and all the other stuff that was supposed to interest a young boy but somehow left me indifferent.

Other boys my age could delicately wield an X-Acto blade across balsam to form the fuselage of a model plane. Some found hours of enjoyment in chemistry sets. A boy named Bob Grimm had an impressive collection of miniature cars. Many saved baseball cards, which, if in later life their wives didn't insist they pitch them out, may well be worth vast sums today. I had none of these things, I did none of these things, I had no need of any of these things. I lived, I now see, in that distant country known as my own mind, where no hobbies were required.

I have over the years met people with some out of the way hobbies. I briefly had an editor, acclaimed for his genius in creating the bestseller Jaws, who kept bees in his basement in a brownstone on the west side of Manhattan. I have a friend who has a collection of 78-rpm records in excess of 150,000, more than half kept in the basement of his home, the rest in a warehouse. Most every night, after work, he checks into various used-record stores looking for still more. I know another man who pays a pit crew $16,000 on a weekend so that he can enter drag races for a purse of usually not more than $3,000. "It's only a hobby," as the punch line for an old Jewish joke has it.

One thinks of mature hobbies as pure diversion and calm-inducing: an older gentleman cultivating his prize-winning roses, a woman quilting with Mozart's flute and harp concerto playing in the background. A hobby sets off leisure from work, signaling a cooling dive into the pool of tranquility. The pleasure they bring to those who adore their hobbies is perhaps greater than any available to them in their working or family lives. They feel most alive in their hobbies; in them they claim to find their truest selves. I do not doubt that this is so.

Would my having a hobby make me more relaxed, a sweeter character generally? Possibly. But I have to wonder what such a hobby, for me, might be. Collecting matchbook covers? Designing my own clothes? Joining a fantasy football league? Performing complicated card tricks? Artfully photographing grass, sand, and leaves?

The New York Times used occasionally to run pieces called Newsmakers, which were profiles of men and women then prominently in the news. Accompanying the profile was a box which set out the main facts of their lives. "Hobbies" was among these facts. People usually used this rubric to establish themselves as cultivated. "Reading and long country walks" was not an uncharacteristic answer to the hobby question. I suppose I could count Reading as my hobby, but I read so much, it is so central to my existence, that, were I to do so, I might as well add Breathing as another of my hobbies.

I wonder if the problem isn't my vocation. A writer's life tends to be seamless, and he doesn't divide it between work and leisure. On the hunt full time for copy, material, something to write about, he doesn't need to collect anything, or play at anything. The writer's work and his play, if he is lucky, are one. How can he have a hobby, really, when the entire world is his hobby?

JOSEPH EPSTEIN