A friend and I were chatting over Marco Polo a few days ago, and she asked me for ideas for an easy hobby that wouldn’t require great artistic talent, copious supplies, a lot of space, major moola, or coloring books (she already has a sturdy supply). These limitations reminded me of my own when my daughter was only a year old, and I was itching to dip my toes into something larger than myself—and something beyond the world of diapering and starting solids.
I didn’t have the time or mental energy, however, to start any projects that would make a mess or involve tedious steps. But I wanted to be excited about something. One day, I was looking online for a specific, difficult-to-find perfume (which, alas, was discontinued). As I searched, I started reading. And reading. Quite by accident, I became addicted to reading about perfume. First, online forums, then engrossing articles by perfume critics, and then Kindle books. When my daughter fell asleep on me, I could entertain myself for hours, traveling down a fragrance rabbit hole (no social media needed!). Soon enough, I was reading about perfumers in addition to perfume itself. I fell in love with the endlessness of the field.
This style of reading is similar to what choreographer Twyla Tharp terms “reading fat” in her inspiring work, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. Reading fat means “not only reading, say, a novel, but reading related texts surrounding the novel, which may be books by the writer’s contemporaries, or commentaries on the novel, or a biography of the writer, or the writer’s letters. I admit it’s a compulsive way to read, but you mine more out of every book.” (And article and forum post, I would add.)
Benefits of Reading Fat
Reading fat, I found, is a balm in an age of reading lightly—including skimming Instagram captions and scrolling through headlines. While surface-level reading certainly has its place, there’s something deeply satisfying about digging deeply into a topic (and its sub-topics). Pursuing something with depth means that it’s always there for you to keep digging into—and having something consistent to turn to during these uncertain times can mean a lot. Regardless of what you read on the news, you can always return to your reading-fat subject.
I suggested reading fat to my friend. In my esteem, it’s the perfect low-maintenance hobby that requires only your phone or device with the option of hard-copy books, magazines, and journals. As a reader, you can be alternately passive and active, depending on your approach to the reading at a given moment. You can do vigorous research and notetaking—or read about your subject for pleasure, making this reading style adaptable to your needs. Many of us are holed up on the couch, feeling awash with the weirdness of these times. It’s nice to have something substantive you can access from the fetal position.
On a lighter note, reading fat seems to help with memory. According to my very un-scientific analysis, reading extensively about a topic helps you remember more about it. Like many new mothers, I experienced foggy memory for over a year after my daughter was born. I had trouble remembering things I studied in the distant past as well as things that happened in the short term. It was beyond frustrating. Reading fat, however, seemed to re-train my brain, and it was encouraging to be able to recall specific details about something I cared about. (As it turns out, reading is good for your mind.)
How to Read Fat
Get obsessed. The key to reading fat is to start with a topic you’re already a bit obsessive about. Reading fat should not feel like homework but rather that activity you can’t wait to have time to do. What are you obsessed with? Start there. It doesn’t have to be “academic” or “high-brow.” Are you really interested in someone famous in their field? Read their biography (or all of their biographies). Alternatively, read everything by a single author—and then everything written about their writing. Be a weirdo.
Multi-media is welcome. Film, music, interviews, podcasts, visual art., etc. Does your obsession also involve any of these? Chances are that at least some multi-media related to your obsession is accessible from your device.
Have patience. Sometimes you may hit a dry spot with your reading and feel that you’ve run out of material. Take a break from it; then look again later. Go back or forward in time. Reach out in a forum. Dig around in social media accounts related to your topic. Believe you will be excited again.
What is your favorite hobby during self-isolation?
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