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Jonathan Sears-Corfield
Jonathan Sears-Corfield

The Mild Bunch: 11 Men With Extremely Boring Hobbies

Jonathan Sears-Corfield
Jonathan Sears-Corfield

Are you an average man fed up with the flash and spectacle of modern life? Are you looking for a place to revel in the ordinary? If so, the Dull Men’s Club might be for you. Founded in New York in 1996 by accountant Leland Carlson, the club describes themselves as “passionate about the everyday, unglamorous things in life,” such as public transportation, vacuum cleaners, gardening, and the correct use of apostrophes.

Last month, Ebury Press published Dull Men of Great Britain, a book featuring 40 profiles of British club members who are notable for their mildness. (A follow-up is planned for the United States, and nominations are currently being accepted.) Far from being depressed about their lack of glamor, these men are “dull and proud”—they’re determined to find the beauty in even the most banal parts of life. 

“In the 21st century, we tend to believe that the fast pace of life is a good thing, that boredom strikes when things remain the same,” psychology professor Mark Coulson of Middlesex University writes in the book’s foreword. “But the proliferation of choices offered to us, from cars to smartphones, from partners to what to watch on TV, actually paralyses us, leaving us miserable and filled with regret.” The solution, Coulson says, lies in giving up the chase for an ever-more-exciting life, and instead finding “serenity in a singular passion,” as these men have done. Even if that passion is traffic cones.

With mini-features on men who are delighted by bricks, drains, and watching paint dry (really), Dull Men of Great Britain may be the perfect gift for the fiercely normal man in your life—or the woman who loves one.

1.  ANDREW DOWD, TRAIN-STATION SPOTTER 

A math teacher from Manchester, Andrew Dowd’s claim to fame is having visited all 2548 railway stations in England, Scotland, and Wales. His quest took him four years, and involved driving 36,000 miles (ironically, he found that it was cheaper to visit train stations by car). He photographed all of the train stations he visited, but admits: “Most of them are not all that interesting.” 

2. DAVID GRISENTHWAITE, LAWN MOWING DIARIST 

David Grisenthwaite has kept a record of every time he’s mowed the lawn since 1984. Although his diaries may seem unremarkable (or perhaps alarmingly obsessive?), his records have been studied by climate change researchers working with the Royal Meteorological Society, which found that average annual lawn-mowing period has increased by a month and a half over more than three decades of mowing. Grisenthwaite also records the amount of garden waste he produces, and memorizes bus tables “for fun.” 

3. DAVID MORGAN, TRAFFIC CONE COLLECTOR 

David Morgan (pictured at top) collects traffic cones—and not just a few. According to Guinness World Records, he has the world’s largest collection of the pointy road accessories. His hobby is not entirely random, however: Morgan works for a plastics company that manufactures the cones, and his collecting began during a legal dispute in which he was trying to find examples to prove his firm had not copied a rival. “Everywhere I go, I collect them …” he says in the book. “There are so many different shapes, sizes and colours. And the models are always changing. The best ones come from village halls and undertakers. Undertakers look after their cones.” 

4. JAMES BROWN, VACUUM CLEANER COLLECTOR

Most kids hate chores, but James Brown was passionate about vacuuming from the age of 4. By age 8, he had convinced his family to let him have his very own vacuum. Today he works selling and repairing the appliances, and his collection now numbers more than 300. Guinness says he has the world’s largest collection, and no one else has ever held the record. On vacation a few years ago, Brown eschewed big city attractions to visit Cleveland, Ohio, home of his favorite vacuum cleaner model, the Kirby.

5. KEVIN BERESFORD, ROUNDABOUT ENTHUSIAST 

Kevin Beresford is president of the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society, a group he founded in 2003 to promote respect for the traffic circles he calls “an oasis on a sea of asphalt.” Beresford has published two books, Roundabouts of Great Britain and Roundabouts from the Air, and spends most of the year traveling around Great Britain to find and photograph roundabouts for his annual calendar, Best of British Roundabouts.

6. NEIL BRITTLEBANK, BRICK COLLECTOR 

A retired mine safety officer, Neil Brittlebank has been collecting bricks since 1996. His collection now includes more than 300 bricks, which he collects from disused collieries, demolition sites, and abandoned buildings (he also accepts donations). Many have come from brickworks that no longer exist. Brittlebank argues that bricks are artifacts of the nation’s industrial heritage, and thus deserve to be celebrated. 

7. ARCHIE WORKMAN, DRAINSPOTTER

A former foundry worker, Archie Workman now spends much of his time finding and photographing drain covers in South Cumbria, where he lives. He says he finds their geometry fascinating. In 2014, he produced a calendar of the drain covers for his local parish, which reportedly became an "overnight sensation." (Proceeds were used to buy tools to clean the drains, as well as wild seeds to encourage attractive vegetation nearby.) 

8. JEREMY BURTON, OBSESSIVE TRAVELER AND RECORD-KEEPER

Baylis Media Ltd.

Jeremy Burton has collected cigarette cards, tea cards, bus tickets, bus numbers, and train numbers. After a career in information technology, he’s now a frequent traveler who obsessively documents his trips by counting the number of miles flown, number of flights, number of airlines, airports, countries, continents, etc. He’s visited more than 100 countries, and is a member of the International Traveler’s Century Club, which exists to celebrate just such an accomplishment. He has also lost his luggage 30 times.

9. JOHN POTTER, RAIL TIMETABLE COMPILER

The Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, sometimes called the “rail bible,” supplied travelers with schedules for 50,000 train, bus, and ferry connections in 5000 locations—or at least it did until it stopped publishing in 2013, a victim of corporate downsizing. After being published for 140 years, the sudden end of the guide was a blow both to travelers and readers who enjoyed imagining journeys from the comfort of their armchairs. 

John Potter, a former member of the Thomas Cook editorial team, re-mortgaged his house to buy the rights to the timetable and the software used to compile it. He now publishes the rescued timetable, which can be ordered from his website, and says he enjoys entering all the train numbers and times. “Some people think numbers are dull,” he says in the book. “I find them interesting.” 

10. NICK WEST, BEER CAN BUFF 

Emma West

Nick West collects beer cans, and has been doing so since before he could legally purchase them. He specializes in British beer cans, of which he says there are 150 to 250 new issues a year. He displays his cans in a special area and in a specific order, as he says in the book: “by brewery, brand and date of release. This means that whenever I find a new can I am continually moving the others around. Sometimes it can take me over an hour to add a single can.” The collection currently numbers over 7500 cans, and Nick says that he only needs to add about another 1500 to cover every British beer can ever produced.

11. PETER WILLIS, MAILBOX PHOTOGRAPHER

Retired mailman Peter Willis is devoted to photographing every example of British mailboxes he can find. So far, he’s snapped more than 2500 of them over the past decade. He has a list from the Royal Mail of the locations of all 115,000 mail boxes in the UK, and his son has programmed the locations into a portable GPS device that beeps every time it gets near one. He says he’s come to terms with the fact that he won’t be able to photograph every mail box in the country, but says he still gets a “little thrill” each time he crosses one off the list.

All photos courtesy Leland Carlson unless otherwise noted.

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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

Book cover for Leave Me Alone With the Recipes
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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

Find It: Amazon

2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

Cover of The Butchering Art
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Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

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3. FOR THE GENEALOGY OBSESSIVE: IT’S ALL RELATIVE: ADVENTURES UP AND DOWN THE WORLD’S FAMILY TREE BY A.J. JACOBS; $27

Cover of Its All Relative
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What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

Find It: Amazon

4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

Cover of The Hate U Give
Amazon

Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

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5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

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6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

The book cover for Atlas Obscura's book
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An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

Find it: Amazon

7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

Find It: The Public Domain Review

8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

Cover of the Big Book of Rogues and Villains
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At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

Find It: Amazon

9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

Find It: Amazon

10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

Book cover for Her Body and Other Parties
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A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

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11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

Find It: Amazon

12. FOR THE GENERALIST: A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH SUBSCRIPTION; $45 FOR THREE MONTHS

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Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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