In Defense of Difficult Pleasures

Harold Bloom calls reading a "difficult pleasure." 

He's right. 

Reading is time-consuming, mentally taxing, and often intellectually unsettling. The same could be said of many other pursuits, of course: writing and running being foremost in my mind this morning. 

It takes personal commitment, persistence, and grit to complete a manuscript, to finish a run, or to push through to the end of a book. You must be focused and have good time management to accomplish these things without letting the rest of your life slip. 


But once you complete one of these tasks, you often have nothing tangible to show for it but a manuscript that may never see the light of day, another race medal to tuck away in your room, or one more small check-mark on your reading list. 

Worse yet, you may have to contend with the people who hound you for spending so much time on a pursuit which they find pointless or unappealing. 

So why bother with these difficult pleasures?

  • Rigorous pursuits leave a lasting impression. Rewards that come easily mean much less to us than ones that come at great personal cost. Difficult pleasures, therefore, add value to our lives, since accomplishing them brings greater satisfaction. 
  • Some of the criticism is misplaced jealousy. While some friends who question our time management might actually have a point--so don't dismiss them too lightly, especially if you value their judgment--others who criticize might be feeling the sting of hours wasted in more trivial pursuits. (Note: regarding the dreaded "You have too much time on your hands," see this article.)
  • Having something to "show for it" is an overrated cultural construct. In the end, we may not have something tangible to represent our investment; but sticking with a difficult pursuit changes us at a fundamental level. Knowing that we can endure to the end without the promise of automatic reward is a realization not to be taken lightly. Personal growth trumps having something tangible to "show for it" in the end.
No matter the difficult pleasure, no matter the slim chance of success, there's still value in the struggle. 

Don't lose sight of that. 

* * *


Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Scribiner, 2000. 


  1. I would quibble with this: "...many who criticize might be feeling the sting of hours wasted in more trivial pursuits." I feel that more likely it's that they see what you're doing as a trivial pursuit. Yes, some may be jealous; on the other hand, in my experience, a lot of it comes down to what people view as worthwhile and what they don't. I think my son's main hobby is trivial; he views it as integral to pursuing what he would like to do with his life. He thinks some of my hobbies are stupid; I view them as key to retaining a sense of identity. Definitely not arguing your main point, though.


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