Digital Divide Volume 7: Other Analog Interests, and Thoughts on Hobbies in General

So I’ve fallen into this blogging/newslettering thing where my main “hobby” has become writing about writing tools (and, sometimes, about the process of writing). While it requires some significant computer time, most of the actual work involves playing around with and using the tools themselves, which is just fine with me. My interest in pens, pencils, and other assorted stationery products stretches back as far as I can remember - I’ve always been into this stuff to some degree or another, which is a common refrain in the stationery community. But when did I get so "into this stuff" that it became not only a hobby but, arguably, a second job? I can trace it back to around 2007-2008, which for me was the point that my personal and professional lives became so digitized (hello, iPhone) that I felt I needed an outlet. Initially I thought I would amass a large collection of vintage fountain pens, but in the end I found that I loved the process of learning about the pens, restoring them, and passing them on to others who would use them more than the collecting and accumulation itself. Gradually, modern pens (and inks) drew my interest alongside the vintage stuff, and my website was born. 

I spent some time thinking about hobbies after this year's D.C. Pen Show. So many of the people whom I've met through my pen hobby aren't just into pens, paper, and ink, but tons of other cool things. Most (but not all) of these side interests have a strong analog aspect to them. This shouldn't come as a surprise. The dictionary definition of a “hobby” is “an activity done in one’s leisure time for pleasure.” A “pastime, a side interest, a diversion, an amusement, or recreation.” If fully 90% of a workday is spent staring at a screen, it makes sense that you may not want to spend all of your free hours doing more of the same.  So what do people drawn to the analog side of things do in their downtime? Based off a quick survey of Twitter, Instagram, and various blogs and websites I follow, here's a quick list of examples: 

  • Journaling and Letter Writing. Along with art and calligraphy, these are the usual suspects for someone who’s into stationery. I’d venture that everyone in the pen hobby dabbles in one of these to varying degrees, even if it’s writing a few sentences summarizing your day (or week), or doodling in the margin of meeting notes. 
  • Analog Audio. I’m thinking of vinyl here, since I share an interest through my modest record collection, but once you really get into high-end analog audio, some people find their way down seemingly insane rabbit holes. (Reel-to-reel tape, anyone?)  Pen people in general seem to be passionate about their music in general, not just headphones, speakers, turntables, etc.
  • Typewriters. Who said the typewriter died in the 80s? The typewriter lives on with its own community of enthusiasts who restore, use, and collect them. Those of us who don’t have the space to warehouse antique typewriters can settle for a mechanical keyboard, which provides a similar tactile, clicky typing experience. (It’s by no means the real deal, though.) And typewriters may even be going “mainstream” again?
  • Photography. The pen blogosphere hosts some amazing photographers. Granted, photography has gone mostly digital, but film enthusiasts still exist.
  • Cooking and Gardening. Spend a little time on Instagram and mixed in among the pen shots you will find some jaw-dropping home gardens (and the culinary rewards).
  • Leather working, Woodworking, Knitting. What people can create in their spare time never ceases to amaze me. These hobbies have launched more than one side business.

What are some common threads that runs through this list, other than that these hobbies require you to do something other than sit in front of a screen for hours at a time? To a certain degree, all involve working with your hands, sometimes with tools. It takes time to develop the skill necessary to fully enjoy these hobbies, and they offer little in the way of instant gratification. You have to be willing to take the long way around and do things the hard way. They require a commitment of significant time and energy, typically in addition to an already demanding and taxing day job. 

Increasingly, people simply aren’t willing to put in the effort, and as a result the concept of a “hobby” is falling by the wayside. The pen community - and the larger "analog" community as a whole - stands in contrast as an interesting and inquisitive bunch. Over the past month, as I was preparing to write this article, I talked to a bunch of my non-pen friends and co-workers in an effort to gauge what they considered their "hobbies" to be. I mostly heard some variation of the following:  

  1. “When would I have time for a hobby?” (The most popular response.)
  2. “A hobby? That’s so inefficient. My time's worth too much money.” (This person was a lawyer, if you couldn't guess.)
  3. "I feel guilty focusing on anything other than my career and my family."
  4. I interviewed a prospective hire for work who had a "hobbies" section on her resume, under which she listed "new business development". 
  5. One person responded: "Drinking." (Sad, but not quite as sad as #4, at least to me.)

Granted, I'm drawing some pretty sweeping conclusions from an admittedly small sample, but these conversations seem to confirm that it's unusual for people to have true hobbies anymore. I find this incredibly sad. Work monopolizes so much of our lives that free time - whether that be time to read, think, or learn another skill for no other reason than that it gives you pleasure - is actually frowned upon, because it means that you "aren't busy enough” and “unproductive.” The prevailing mindset dictates that time spent on something (no matter how enjoyable) must have some directly corresponding monetary return to make it “worth your time.”  

Personally, I think this is misguided. Those people I know who do have a hobby, or at least something other than their primary source of income that they were passionate about, are among the most professionally successful people I know. Hobbies and outside interests prevent job burnout by taking your mind off work. And I certainly don’t buy that they detract from overall professional performance. Hobbies help us cultivate soft skills (i.e. patience, diligence, focus, etc.) that, while they might not immediately enhance our current income, make us more well-rounded people, and therefore better overall business owners/partners/bosses/employees. Plus, hobbies are just fun, and I wish more people would remember that there’s nothing wrong with doing something for the sheer enjoyment of it.

Links and Further Reading

If you enjoyed this newsletter, you may also enjoy the following articles, some of which are source material linked to above, but others offer additional (and different) insight into the topics discussed.

  1. Stephanie Buck, "Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it. The consequences of monetizing your bliss." (via Medium) 
  2. The Art of Manliness, "The Ultimate List of Hobbies for Men: 75+ Ideas For Your Free Time." Obviously, the site is geared toward men, but most (if not all) of the hobbies discussed can be universally enjoyed.
  3. Steven Savage, "The Danger of Hobby Burnout". It goes without saying that you should adopt a hobby because you enjoy it. Otherwise it just becomes another chore, which can have consequences. 
  4. Dan Scotti, "Why Don't Millennials Have Hobbies Anymore?"