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Labun Jordan: Rules Of Reading

09/04/12 7:55AM By Helen Labun Jordan
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(Host) In her work at e-Vermont, commentator Helen Labun Jordan reads and writes quite a bit, but recently she decided to pursue a writing degree - and while she's enjoying the experience, it's made her start to wonder about the future of hobbies.

(Labun Jordan) Here's something you don't appreciate until it's gone - pleasure reading.

In the decade since my last English class I've avoided tales of middle-aged male angst, bailed from dull novels, and kept my intellectual depth at your basic murder mystery. That's pleasure reading. It was pleasurable.

And then, I enrolled in a master's degree program in fine arts. I wanted more professional skills in writing. My first clues of the difference came at the residency, when pleasure reading was replaced by something else.

Turns out, reading leaves a lot of room for error. I tried to interpret poetry, and short stories, and memoir, and when the professor said "tell me what feelings this piece evokes for you" he soon added "I really don't see how you got there". I fumbled through enjambment, stopline, found line, partial villanelle. I learned that 'suspension of disbelief' has all the details of a formal legal contract.

Exhausted by new rules of reading, residency novices gathered around the cafeteria's frozen yogurt machine to eat sugar and talk about anything but whether we'd read a good book lately. Then we went back to unraveling fragmented narrative.

The career advice to do what you love comes with plenty of risks - less so if what you love is engineering, more so if it's playing lead guitar in a rock band. One risk we don't talk much about is that the process of turning what you love into a job might very well knock the pleasure out of it.

It's easy to get that risk intuitively - like when you're struggling to define the cadence of dialogue instead of enjoying Janet Evanovich. What hasn't been so easy is drawing the line. "Do what you love" now means a trend where hobbies aren't hobbies anymore, they're careers waiting to happen.

Look at writing. Anyone can publish work online, print books for a small fee, dabble in multimedia. Some states have turned public libraries into publishing houses. The book 'Fifty Shades of Gray' transformed an online fan fiction writer into New York Times bestseller, and gave us all a taste of the new no man's land between amateur and professional. The book's writing quality is reported to be terrible, but then it started as something written for the writer's own amusement... quality was beside the point.

Expectations shift when amateurs use publishing tools - sometimes subtly, sometimes in a major book deal. Either way, just for fun isn't the only goal any more. And there are a lot of places where new tools have upgraded our hobbies into something quasi-professional: 3-D printers let us turn garages into factories, our kitchen gadgets could appear on Iron Chef, there's even DIY race car design.

It's a golden age for people who want to blur that line between hobbyist and professional. But we're starting to confuse ‘better' - measured in higher skills, fancier tools, greater recognition - with more enjoyable. It's time to re-embrace hobbies that are simply hobbies and nothing more.

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