In his Pensees, Pascal maintains that our experience of boredom–especially our efforts to minimize or avoid it–is one of the core elements of our humanity. It afflicts kings as much as paupers, and it’s both terrible and potentially redemptive; the specter of being bored scares the daylights out of most of us, but it also motivates a good percentage of our higher achievements. What is Ulysses if not, among other things, a 700-plus-page defense against the weird complex of frustration, longing, low-grade agony, fatigue, and nerves that we call “boredom”? (Ironic, then, that in mounting this defense the novel focuses on precisely the sorts of daily activities–running errands, buying lunch, having lecherous thoughts, walking around–that are themselves 1.) potentially very boring and 2.) minor bulwarks against boredom.) Same goes for lots of other books. I just happen to be sitting across the room from my copies of Joyce’s novels.
With all that in mind, check out this affectionate, covertly sad essay from the most recent New York Times Sunday Book Review (yes, they still do one). Written by Jennifer Schuessler, “Our Boredom, Ourselves” is organized around ruminations on how reading and thinking about books are acts which are bound up with the question of what exactly boredom is and what exactly it feels like and why exactly it keeps happening to most of us.
We read, and write, in large part to avoid it. At the same time, few experiences carry more risk of active boredom than picking up a book. Boring people can, paradoxically, prove interesting. As they prattle on, you step back mentally and start to catalog the irritating timbre of the offending voice, the reliance on cliché, the almost comic repetitiousness — in short, you begin constructing a story. But a boring book, especially a boring novel, is just boring. A library is an enormous repository of information, entertainment, the best that has been thought and said. It is also probably the densest concentration of potential boredom on earth.
Did any of you know that Dickens was the first person to employ “boredom” as a noun? I didn’t. Especially fitting, I guess, that he introduces that usage in Bleak House, which is arguably (read: TGR’s opinion) the most entertaining (and profuse) meditation on confusion and existential torpidity in English literature.
And if you still find yourself un-bored by boredom, consider buying the aphoristic anthology Ennui to Go: The Art of Boredom, which seems entertaining and has a great cover and is available on Amazon for a dollar (used).
As John Berryman remarks in one of his Dream Songs, Life, friends, is boring–we must not say so. Yet we keep saying so.