Intellectual leisure

At lunch a few days ago, a friend of mine told me that he had been reading until 2:30 a.m. At first, this didn’t seem unusual at all. After all, we all attend Williams College, where the nightly reading assignments can be, frankly, insane. What was surprising was when he told me he was up late reading not a biology textbook or Pride and Prejudice for English class, but rather Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons translated into German. And after my initial surprise, and indignant reaction to the fact that he was functioning on five hours of sleep, I began to realize just how much I admired the fact that, despite classes, extracurricular activities and the temptation of Xbox in the common room, my friend was making time to pursue an interest entirely separate from divisional requirements, potential majors and future job opportunities. To put it colloquially, he was taking time for the oft forgotten leisure read.

How much we all enjoy reading, or really any type of learning for fun, and how often we unfortunately must neglect it, is kind of troubling. But it’s not difficult to see why this happens. The academics, athletics and extracurricular activities that make the College special are special exactly because we dedicate so much of our time to them. So this isn’t an argument that we should stop doing all the other awesome things that we are doing so we can sit and read.

Additionally, as much as we wish for it not to be true, there are a finite number of minutes, hours and days, and there exists no amount of coffee that we can down each morning that lets us function on four hours of sleep. And even when we do have free time, it’s easy to understand the temptation to immediately hit up Netflix (or whatever your online time-wasting video method of choice is). That’s a totally legitimate use of time, especially considering how much we jam into a day.  So while it’s an issue, it’s unfortunately not one that is easy to solve.

But busy schedules don’t mean that we can’t try to make sure we have time for our hobbies. If we do, I think that we’ll find the benefits are numerous.

First, hobbies with an academic twist are the perfect type of a leisure activity, as they are both relaxing and fulfilling. They don’t leave you as mentally tired as organic chemistry or Shakespeare, but they also don’t give you that “is that really how I spent my last four hours” feeling that accompanies binge watching your go-to Netflix series.

Second, it can actually help you with your classes. Two of the most enjoyable and fulfilling papers I worked on last year were heavily inspired by Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a book that I read for fun over the summer.

Finally, there’s something liberating about reading and learning about something just because you want to. With no nightly assignments, GLOW posts or highlighting, we can learn as much or as little as we want, for the sole purpose of interest.

Not that reading is the only valid way to pursue an extra academic interest. One of my (admittedly nerdy) greatest pleasures over the past few months has been what I like to call the “leisure code.” It’s when I try and take a few minutes each day and program just for fun. Whether this is just fiddling around with a new computer language or working on a website that helps you find public bathrooms in San Francisco (this is a real issue!), the important thing is that it is whatever I feel like working on that day. And leisure coding isn’t the only option. Who says leisure bio experiments or leisure Portuguese can’t start competing for a half-hour of our precious time? I’d like to think that we all have an interest that we would pursue if only we had the time, and I think that if we started taking the time, we’d all be glad we did.

As a disclaimer, I’m probably not the best person to legitimately make this argument. I’ve seen every episode of King of Queens, and when I came back from Snack Bar last night, I instinctively reached for the Xbox controller, not the Thomas Jefferson biography I’ve made about 10 pages of progress on over the last two months. But I hope my preferences for subpar ’90s sitcoms and late-night gaming don’t invalidate the larger points I’m trying to make. Part of the reason we are at Williams is to better ourselves intellectually. And while classes are incredible for that, so is pursuing a leisure academic hobby that seems entirely unrelated to anything we are studying. I know that all too often we are interrupted from our essays, lab reports and problem sets by the 1:14 a.m. Daily Messages letting us know that it’s time to go to bed. But I guess this is encouragement to stay up that extra half hour and pursue an intellectual hobby just for the hell of it. We can always get another shot of espresso, right?

Matt McNaughton ’16 is from State College, Pa. He lives in Gladden.


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