I realized as soon as I typed this title in that it was probably completely superfluous advice for anyone considering applying to Oberlin or currently at school here, so let me explain a little bit what I mean. If you are anything like I was when I was a senior reading the Oberlin blogs, nothing is, strictly speaking, a hobby; everything is deadly serious. You are taking a bunch of AP classes that you are really interested in; you’re really devoted to band and to your drama club. It seems like the only thing that is holding you back is your devotion to any one thing; you have the feeling that if Economics were only a little more important to you, you’d devote that extra energy and be good enough at it to make a career out of it. When the common app asks you what your hobbies are, you’re pretty much reduced to saying reading. It’s probably true; it’s probably most of what you do with your free time.
In my personal experience, this changes a lot when you get to college, or at least it does when you’re an English major. I once heard that if you’re serious about being a literature major you stop liking to read. I’m not ready to agree to that, at least not yet. I spend a fairly large amount of my time reading. But here’s the thing. For other people, reading is a pleasurable distraction. For my fellow college students, it can be dangerous to go to the library because they might be entranced by the shelves full of fiction (or nonfiction or poetry, whatever floats your boat). As an English major, I never worry about that. In addition to the pleasure I get from reading, I view every book as a tiny addition to my CV, another foothold on someone else’s work. And this poses a problem for me, because reading is no longer just my hobby: it’s my life’s work.
Okay, I’m obviously getting a little out of control. I’m not ready to say reading is my "life’s work." I’m still a little under the spell of this book I read recently, Anatomy of Influence by Harold Bloom. Harold Bloom is (according to Wikipedia) the most celebrated literary critic in the United States. He teaches at Yale and is about 80 years old. He reads all of Shakespeare through every year. Anatomy of Influence is a weird book, and I’m not sure if I agree with everything he says--for that matter I’m pretty sure I don’t understand everything he says. Which makes sense. It reads like the summation of a seventy-year career as, essentially, a professional reader. It also represents the kind of thing I want to do with my life.
Earlier in the semester I made a glib comment on a paper proposal that I was feeling intimidated by literature, a comment which my professor later asked me about and which I never went to talk to her about as she had suggested, mostly because I wasn’t sure myself what I’d meant by it. It was late when I wrote that statement, I reasoned. It doesn’t mean anything.
It does, though. "Intimidated by literature" is a rough and inexact way of articulating this sentiment that’s been building up inside me for a while and which came to a crux with Anatomy of Influence. I want to do with my life roughly what Harold Bloom’s done with his: I want to say significant things about literature. But I don’t have the tools yet. I have this respect for language and literature but I don’t have the critical apparatus, or the opinions, or for that matter enough reading under my belt to achieve my goals. At this stage in my life that’s fine (I hope): I’m a sophomore, I have two more years of college and then if I decide to go to graduate school I’ll have that level of preparation as well. I’m not just intimidated by literature, the act of sitting down with a piece of literature and interacting with it; I’m intimidated by the whole enterprise, the idea of formulating opinions and interpreting things and writing about it and influencing other people like literary critics and theorists have influenced me.
In her (excellent) memoir Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman talks a lot about her decision to lead a literary life. At some point, a friend asks her what she really wants to be, and she says, "Well, what I really want to be is a New York intellectual." And her friend says, "you know it will be difficult, but if that’s what you want you may as well try." Of course Eva Hoffman is a brilliant woman and so she goes to New York City and falls in with the right scene and it seems to work out for her. But she tells this story in the context of her memoir about reconciling her Polish self and her American self. Reading English literature wasn’t what she grew up on; there were other parts of her identity, and she talks extensively about the process of "triangulating" between her Polish self, her American self, and the literary world around her. She talks about triangulating as a painful process, but a fruitful one. I can’t come at literary life from the same angle; reading English literature involves almost no abstraction for me, no existential crisis, which is mostly a good thing.
The thing that Eva Hoffman’s Polish self--the part that threatens to be lost in translation--does is force her to look at things from a different perspective, to question the process by which she arrived at the position she describes in Lost in Translation, the part where she’s comfortable with the English language and has mastered English literature (insofar as that is possible.) If I were a History major, or a Neuroscience major, or a Hispanic Studies major, my familiarity with English literature would be a different perspective; it would be my thing, the thing I would use to relax or that I would make small talk about.
Reading was always my thing, as I suspect it may be your thing if you’ve gotten this far in my blog and in your life. Reading English literature was and is my thing, now more than ever. Caring about the quality of the literature I read has especially been my thing. But now that it’s turning into something more (or less) than just "my thing," I’m beginning to realize that I need a new hobby. When you care so fiercely about something it becomes hard to chat with people about it.
It’s actually less hard than I would have thought, finding a hobby. I hadn’t played my flute in months, but I agreed to accompany my grandmother’s choir again this Christmas, so I did a little bit of practicing last semester in order to prepare. I’ll never be a great flutist. That’s becoming obvious by this point.1 But playing the flute feels so nice, in a completely different way than reading Eugene O’Neill does, because, even when I’m trying to play all the notes perfectly, I don’t feel as urgent about understanding the piece of music as I do about English literature.
The same thing happened in the Spanish class I took last semester, and particularly from watching the movies our professor assigned. I’d forgotten a little bit how much I like thinking in Spanish. It takes an effort; my spoken Spanish is still halting, and my writing is not much better. But I like exercising different muscles than my English Lit muscles. And it’s nice to come back to it from a different angle than I came at it in high school, when everything was so serious and I was only worried about finding the thing I was best at and doing it for the rest of my life.
The hard thing about having hobbies (for me at least) is this: I feel endlessly compelled to compare myself to other people. This tendency is especially destructive with regard to music. I don’t need to compare myself to Con students. I tend to focus on the disparity between the amount of time we spend practicing--practically infinite--but that’s not what I’m in it for anymore. Maybe in high school I was a little bit, but now I’m just playing because it’s fun and I enjoy it. Not because I want anyone to be impressed with me, or because I want to make an artistic statement, or make money, or whatever reason Conservatory students have for doing what they do.
I never really considered how broad the definition of hobby is. There are certainly people at Oberlin who get involved in an activity that they had no interest in or access to in high school; they take advantage of Oberlin’s great extracurricular program to learn horseback riding, or about social networking, or how to play an exotic new instrument. I’ve never been adventurous, which means I have to count hobbies as things that are closer to home, things I do just because I enjoy them.
There’s obviously crossover: I see learning Spanish as something practical, and the Hispanic Studies class I took last semester counted towards my English major. And I really enjoy reading about 95% of the things I read for my English major (both in and out of class), so it’s not like I’m just doing the English major for the prestige of it (that would be stupid) or because I think it will take me places (that would be stupider). I’m doing it because I want to. When I declared my English major I was pretty sure that I was doing it both because it squared with where I saw myself in ten years and because it was something I wanted to do. What I didn’t foresee was that declaring a major in what I thought of as my "hobby" (actually, I prefer the vaguer "my thing") would make it necessary for me to find new hobbies, new things to do just for the fun of it.
I know this is obvious advice, and possibly extraneous advice for people who aren’t English majors or who have a good sense of what their hobbies are, but I certainly didn’t understand it in high school. I might have nodded in agreement if you’d told me hobbies were an important part of being a relaxed, happy person, but I was more focused on figuring out what I wanted to do during the day than what I wanted to do when I got home from work. (Maybe it comes from being an INTJ; maybe I just don’t know how to have fun.) What Harold Bloom taught me was that there is so much more to be learned from the study of English literature. What Eva Hoffman taught me was that it’s not enough to be single-minded in your pursuit of the goal of understanding English literature and saying things about it. There has to be another angle, whether it’s an identity crisis or just a hobby that you use to relax.
I don’t have the answers to either of those questions yet, actually, but with this realization I feel like I’m farther along than I was before. And isn’t that what college is about, anyway: learning things about yourself? It’s not a race, it’s not a competition. Have fun.
To be honest, this became obvious at the moment when, nine years old, I told my father I wished I were better at the flute, and he told me that I would be if I spent my free time practicing instead of reading.
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February 16, 2021