The phrase “busman’s holiday” dates to the nineteenth century, and the popularity of the horse-drawn omnibus. The idea was that if a busman (or driver) went on vacation, or holiday, he would likely travel by the same means that provided his paycheck. Today the idea is extended to any form of recreation involving what one also does for work.
So, yes, when book critics sit down to read for pleasure, you could say we’re taking a busman’s holiday. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Anyone fortunate enough to get paid for writing about books has been reading since early childhood, well before the concept of needing to get paid for anything has registered. When I read “Charlotte’s Web” as an eight-year-old I wasn’t thinking about how cool it would be to draw a check for my efforts. Readers read because they learned to love it early on and kept on loving.
Which brings us, in a round-about way, to the question: How does a book critic approach the task of reading for pleasure? What, to the critic, might qualify as a “beach read?” How do we escape? Do we escape? Or are we fated to remain trapped between the lines of professional obligation?
The answers, again, are complicated. Or some of them are, anyway.
I recently took a trip to Italy, partly for work, partly for pleasure (you might see a trend developing here). I knew I would have several deadlines to meet while I was away, so I packed the necessary galleys (or, in some cases, downloaded them to my Kindle) and spent a fair amount of time in Florence tapping away at my laptop in a café (note: this is not a complaint). This trip wasn’t going to pay for itself.
But I also made certain to pack a big book that had nothing to do with my job. That book was Louis Menand’s “The Free World,” an addictive, interdisciplinary chronicle of art and culture during the Cold War, from Sartre and Beauvoir to Elvis and The Beatles. You might wonder what kind of person considers this vacation reading, but that’s probably a question for another column (or perhaps my therapist).
Here’s the part that might seem strange to the non-professional reader. If someone were to offer me the chance to write about “The Free World” – unlikely, since it published more than two years ago – I would jump at it. The reasons come down to what you think of as “pleasure.” For me, reading is certainly part of it, probably the biggest part of it. But I also take great pleasure in the digestion of the ideas, the act of interpretation, and the challenge of committing all of the above to a piece of writing that others will hopefully read.
I do not write about every book I read, or every film I watch. That would be impossible. But I probably would if I could. Because this, too, is pleasure.
Chris Vognar, a freelance culture writer, was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University.