A reader from Spokane, Wash., whose existence I had never suspected before Wednesday, wrote to ask: “Is literature merely a hobbyhorse of yours?” Well, yes, despite the adverb. “Hobby” is wrong. “Vocation” is pretentiously wrong, and so is “avocation.” “Pastime”? Weak and meaningless. Golf is a pastime. I didn’t have a satisfactory answer and offered the feeble “It’s what I like to do.”
One of Laurence Sterne’s hobby-horses in Tristram Shandy is “hobbyhorse.” Walter Shandy obsesses on his vacuous theories unattached to reality – a fine parody of intellectuals. Uncle Toby’s hobbyhorse is military strategy and construction of his bowling-green battlefield. His servant, Corporal Trim, revels in the sound of his own voice. Sterne treats hobby-horses, rightly, as fodder for comedy. In real life, they are more likely to be tiresome, especially hobby-horses of the political variety, a plague upon the land. Sterne concludes his seventh chapter like this:
“Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself,—have they not had their HOBBY-HORSES;—their running horses,—their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,—their maggots and their butterflies?—and so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,—pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?”
A hobbyhorse lies somewhere between a harmless diversion and a symptom of OCD. Ladling on more flattery, my reader adds, “You’re a kind of coelacanth”—a primitive fish once thought to be extinct. He goes on: “America today is inhospitable to the serious bookworm, don't you think?” No, I answered, “I think it’s indifferent. Most people don’t give a shit, and there’s nothing wrong with that reaction or lack of reaction. We can’t expect credit or admiration for doing what we like to do.”
In the summer 2017 issue of The Hopkins Review, the poet and rare book dealer Ernest Hilbert reviewed Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books by Michael Dirda, the longtime book columnist for The Washington Post. I like Dirda and once interviewed him for a newspaper story I was writing about the novelist William Kennedy. As often happens when one dedicated reader meets another, we started swapping favorite books and writers. This was thirty years ago but I remember our shared enthusiasm for, among others, the Spanish writer Julian Rios. Hilbert writes: “If the life of the mind required an advocate, Dirda would be on retainer. After all, it is hard to argue with his well-worn conviction that ‘we don’t read for high-minded reasons. We read for aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual excitement.’”
That’s it: excitement, or at least sustained, reliable pleasure. I don’t know how we acquire it. My family was not bookish. I wasn’t discouraged to read. Rather, I was surrounded by indifference. As a result, there was nothing guilty about the pleasure I experienced. I know that if all else is equal (which it never is), I prefer the company of well-read people to non-readers. We tend to understand each other and share comparable senses of irony, humor and all-around values. We like ideas, yes, but we usually like words and their artful arrangement even more.