Perhaps that’s something to differentiate human beings from other animals: the need for a calling. Have you noticed that almost no one – especially no one with any pretensions to being educated or enlightened – is satisfied with a simple “job” anymore? It’s not enough to have a job, a career, or even a profession; everyone wants a vocation. Even in business and industry, where metaphysical considerations used to nap from 9 to 5, people want a sense of calling, the conviction that the work they’re doing serves a higher purpose, a transcendent goal. The preacher-teachers of today are really no different from others in this respect.
It’s the “educated and enlightened” part that’s the key. I’ve walked widdershins around the idea of work as a calling for my entire adult life, and it seems to me that a pococurante attitude here puts one on the wrong side of a class divide, even more than income. “Jobs” are for people who, well, can’t do any better, poor things. For the educated and enlightened, work is both personal expression and public service. My goal regarding work has always been to find something at which I’m reasonably competent and that pays me well enough to get by. Self-expression? That’s for my free time; that’s why I have a blog.
Oh, you have a blog? Why don’t you join the exodus to Substack like all the cool kids and maybe get paid for your efforts, or pitch some essays to some digital journals? Because I don’t want to feel indebted to subscribers, or pressured to produce “content.” I want to have a hobby that’s about nothing but enjoyment. Turning my hobby into a job would bring with it all the things everyone hates about their job. When work is done, I get to read books and think and sometimes write down my thoughts about those books. Why would I need to see how far that could be pushed? Why mess with perfection?
Every so often, real-world people discover that I like to read a lot. Some of them suggest I should write a book. I don’t think they really mean it; it’s just a knee-jerk thing to say. Some of them ask if I’m reading for a class. Some of them even ask why I live where I do, in a small, unexciting town, rather than in, I don’t know, some literary hotspot, I guess. The guiding assumption is that any sort of interest or talent should be maximized, monetized, and merchandised, or else it’s just going to waste. Why would you read and write just for the fun of it?
I’m an ordinary guy with no great ambition who likes to read and write. Why should that be an oddity? Whatever happened to the golden age of middlebrow culture, which Susan Jacoby paid tribute to so affectionately? I remember being at a book sale a few years ago and being surprised at the weighty subjects that comprised some of the mid-century Book of the Month Club offerings. When did it stop being widely enjoyable to read biographies and works of history for fun? Off the top of my head, I’d name two potential causes. One, the explosion of entertainment options. There are countless ways to stupefy and titillate oneself, all of them easier and cheaper than a reading habit. And two, perhaps the idea of familiarizing oneself with “the great works” as a means of self-improvement came to seem naïve. Maybe that kind of striving only appealed to a mid-century belief in progress, before disillusionment and cynicism set in. Society isn’t getting any better. You’re not going to have a higher standard of living than your parents did. Everything is crass and insincere, and all that matters is finding an angle to get paid. Why are you giving away your writing for free, like an idiot?
It’s very fashionable to reclaim slurs these days. A while back, I announced my intention to reclaim the term “idiot” as an identity. Today, let me rededicate myself to that effort. Like my idiot forefathers, I will continue to hide my light under a bushel basket, too insignificant to even earn contempt, while sophisticated people go about their important business.