On Contemplative Hobbies

Luke Burgis
3 min readAug 21, 2023

A Jon Franzen-Inspired Reflection on the Joy of Passivity

Author Jonathan Franzen has written about his love of bird-watching for a very long time. Recently, he published this wonderful essay in the New Yorker (by far my top read from last week) on “The Problem of Nature Writing”, which is drawn from a collection titled Spark Birds.

There are many interesting things in Franzen’s essay. He compares the praise of nature to the devotion of the biblical Psalmist, and explains why it’s such a difficult book of the bible to appreciate (not unlike writing about bird-watching; the devotion of the bird-watcher is difficult to understand unless you’ve had the kind of experience that Franzen has…). And, in his own way, he addresses the content problem, which I discussed with Thomas J Bevan on Anti-Mimetic last week:

Unfortunately, no matter how felicitous the descriptions may be, the writer is competing with other media that a reader could be turning to instead, audiovisual media that actually show you the eagle or let you hear the loon. Ever since the advent of color photography and sound recording, lengthy descriptions have become problematic in all genres of writing, and they’re especially problematic for the evangelizing nature writer.

I’ve taken an interest in bird-watching lately, completely unrelated to Franzen’s influence. It started at the beginning of lockdown in 2020 when Claire and I were holed up in a house on Lake Michigan in Norton Shores, MI, where we happened to have a bald eagle living in our backyard and giving us daily flyovers. We named him Caesar.

But it’s not bird-watching in particular that is on my mind today. It’s bird-watching as a genre of hobby that is — at least on the surface — almost entirely passive. And I wonder if everyone should have one of these “passive hobbies”, and how different the world might be if we did. Why? Because they take us out of ourselves and into a world that we don’t control.

The problem with any active hobby, e.g. sports, is that they tend to revolve around ourselves: we can always improve, we can always learn a new skill, we can measure our progress in all kinds of ways. Those hobbies often turn out to be an exercise of self-centeredness. They’re about me, not an other. The beauty of birds is that there is such an otherness about them that we can’t help but detach ourselves from some of our more petty human concerns.

Aside from Caesar the bald eagle, this is my favorite bird that I’ve ever watched. He was deciding on where he wanted to fly to next from the top of a castle on the island of Ischia, where I was having an Aperol Spritz. I watched him for about 15 minutes.

A passive hobby that pulls us out of ourselves to the point of self-forgetfulness is an antidote to the technological culture in which everything needs to be productive, needs to change, needs to improve, needs to show “results.”

Some things are perfectly good just as they are. Contemplating these things can be a powerful reminder that the world is not just here to be cultivated and improved, but loved and enjoyed.



Luke Burgis

Author of “WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.” Find more at read.lukeburgis.com