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Is boredom good for us?



Boredom: A Lively History
Peter Toohey
Yale University Press, 224 pages


In the days and weeks after Steve Jobs died, the Internet was flooded with memorials and homages. Writers rehashed the details of his life in an attempt to illustrate what made the man tick. It was clear that things were getting out of hand when one major tech site ran the article “Steve Jobs Enjoyed Many Types Of Tea, Book Says.” Perhaps the most useful clue emerged in Stephen Levy’s obituary of Jobs: “I’m a big believer in boredom,” Jobs once told Levy. Boredom leads to curiosity, and “out of curiosity comes everything.”

Peter Toohey’s recent book, Boredom: A Lively History, is a variation on this theme: boredom is essential, even good. The jacket advertises an exploration of boredom through 3,000 years of history, culture, science, and psychology: "There are Australian aboriginals and bored Romans, Jeffrey Archer and caged cockatoos, Camus and the early Christians, Dörer and Degas." If you can get past the excessive alliteration, you might think this sounds like a fascinating book. And it is, in part. It is also a book that in trying to do too much does very little well.

Toohey differentiates between two types of boredom. The first he calls simple boredom, brought on by dull, inescapable situations or by an overexposure to something. Momentary tedium, we might say. He links this sort of boredom with disgust: “Boredom is a social emotion of mild disgust produced by a temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstance.” This is the boredom that Steve Jobs was referring to, and this is the boredom that primarily interests Toohey. Simple boredom “has a direct bearing on our ordinary emotional lives, keeping company (as I hope to show), with depression and anger while protecting us from their ravages.” Boredom is a warning system, keeping us from tedious, potentially damaging situations by spurring us to resituate ourselves.

Toohey traces boredom back to the Latin taedium, which encompasses weariness and boredom with life. He points to a delightful bit of first century graffiti on a wall in Pompeii: “Wall! I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.” There is an ancient inscription on a wall in Benevento that memorializes a consular for saving the town from boredom. The author also analyzes quite a few pieces of art, most of them from the Renaissance or later, searching them for signs of boredom. Meditating on Lo Spagna’s The Agony in the Garden leads Toohey to ask if Christ’s disciples suffer from boredom in Gethsemane.

But the history of simple boredom is hard to trace, and Toohey doesn’t have that many early historical examples of simple boredom. Perhaps this is a good thing. Imagine a 3,000 year chronicle of mundane daily tasks. The mind reels at the possibility. In fact, calling the book a history is slightly misleading. Much of the book is spent discussing the causes and associations of simple boredom. Toohey is indebted to scientists and sociologists, whose studies he intersperses with examples from literature and culture. He delves into studies tracing the neurological roots of boredom (perhaps a shortage of dopamine), and gives readers a rundown of the types of body language that connote boredom. There are discussions of the boredom that plagues animals and humans in captivity and ample evidence linking boredom with Attention Deficit Disorder, with substance abuse and with anger. Readers are even given a slightly gossipy account of one of the author’s old friends who succumbed to alcoholism—perhaps because he was bored. Boredom, it turns out, is not beneficial if there is no constructive outlet.

There is a much larger history for the second type of boredom, “complex” or “existential” boredom. This is the “noonday demon,” acedia, of the Desert Fathers, who complained of a boredom so intense they were driven to thoughts of death. This is what Robert Burton is referring to in his Anatomy of Melancholy. Sartre employs the term “nausea” in his eponymous book. Toohey thinks that existential boredom may not exist in praxis—that it is a “chimera,” probably the product of over-intellectualizing: “There may be too many dissimilarities between acedia, melancholia, and Nausea for them to have clear ties within lived experience. I suspect that this tradition is more the product of intellect.” His concern, then, is to undermine existential boredom and focus on simple boredom, though much of the book is concerned with differentiating between them.

Despite this, the distinction between the two is never that clear. In his effort to debunk existential boredom and strengthen the link between simple boredom and disgust, he repeatedly refers to the “grimy” existence of the desert fathers. And yet the opposite was probably true. I spoke to one Evagrius scholar who noted that many of the desert hermits likely had a servant and rooms in their cells in which to entertain guests. Further, Toohey is too dismissive of existential boredom, which can arise out of simple boredom. No one has ever killed himself from existential boredom, he says. That is the illness of depression. But certainly the two can be related.

The reason Toohey is so keen to differentiate between simple and existential boredom is that he wants to dispute the constructivist position that the concept of boredom was developed in the enlightenment. The constructivist argument, put forth by cultural historians and social scientists, is somewhat convincing: the first recorded use of the English verb “bore” doesn’t occur until 1768. The word “boredom” doesn’t appear for another hundred years. Boredom was a result of modern economies giving people more leisure time, crushing bureaucracies, and the decline of a communal life based around the church.

Toohey thinks such statements are due to confusion between simple and existential boredom. Simple boredom has always been around in varying degrees. It has helped us evolve. As an essentialist, he finds himself in the company of scientists and sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson. The argument Toohey is attempting to advance falls somewhere in the realm of sociobiology and evolutionary theory.

And here Boredom unintentionally makes its strongest point: writing well about science is hard. The reason that writers like Jonah Lehrer and Atul Gawande are so valuable is that they can decipher scientific studies and write about them in prose that is both lucid and understandable to the non-scientist. Neuroscience and evolutionary theory are all the rage in the humanities, but too often the results are so much pseudo-intellectual drivel. Modal verbs abound as Toohey timidly investigates studies, often forcing them to do work they’re not meant to do. In one passage, after noting that “reliable statistics on the frequency of chronic boredom in normal populations are hard to come by,” the author suggests using rates of paranoia as a “basis for speculation,” since boredom has been linked with paranoia. He cites an experiment on paranoia, and then admits that it tells us “nothing definitively” about chronic boredom. But Toohey wants to try to tease out some meaning from the “admittedly stretched syllogism,” so he says that this paranoia experiment “might suggest that sometimes up to one in four people will suffer from chronic boredom.” Several times he cites a fictional character as evidence for a scientific point he is trying to make. Thus a 2.5 page summary of Stephen King’s The Shining to persuade readers that boredom is associated with anger.

But Boredom’s main flaw is its lack of flow. Toohey uses the shotgun approach: with a broad spread you’ll hit something. The strategy doesn’t work as well as it might. While many of the stories and studies are fascinating, the unifying themes of the chapters are not strong enough to hold together the disparate examples culled from history, science, and art. The reader, consequently, feels jerked around as the book jumps from one topic to another. The grammar school trick of a clever transitional sentence drawing together too disparate topics is too often employed to make it of any use. Here’s a representative passage:

    Boredom is a condition of the socialized and, for much of the time, of the well fed. There are of course exceptions—Andy Warhol was very skinny and he claimed that he was very bored indeed. But it is probably different for animals. The better fed they are, I suspect, the more liable they are to boredom. And it is no doubt true that dogs living with humans get more bored than dogs that live in the wild, perhaps because pet dogs don't need to spend so long foraging for food.

Not until chapter five does he pose the question “Does boredom have a history?” A linear approach through history would have made for a stronger book.

The book is also marred by cloying, professorial humor: “Charles and Emma Bovary should both have taken the Boredom Proneness Scale test before they attempted to cohabit.” Toohey comes across as your date’s father, making jokes at the dinner table the first time you meet him. At first you laugh obligingly. By the end of the evening you are considering ending the relationship. I’m afraid that I found myself scrawling uncharitable notes in the margins and in one instance, when Toohey writes that “Seneca ended up knowing a lot about suicide,” I may have thrown the book.

An author is accountable for his or her own work. But I can’t help but think that Mr. Toohey has been failed by Yale University Press. Some skillful-if-heavy editing could have mitigated the problems of flow and cohesion. (Did no one think it jarring to have a picture of and brief meditation on Victoria Beckham, who topped the Independent’s 2008 ‘The Boring List’, juxtaposed with a meditation on Böcklin’s painting Odysseus and Calypso? I was thankful, however, for the hilarious picture of a sunbathing Theodor Adorno looking like a small bald child in a one-piece bathing suit.) The physical book is also problematic. The meditations on various Renaissance paintings would have benefited from color images. In several instances, Toohey describes an image that the reader does not encounter until turning the page—and by this time the text has moved on to other topics.

In the rapidly expanding world of publishing options, publishers and writers ought to be careful what medium they choose. It seems as though the publishers and the author were intent on making a book that would appeal to a more general audience, hence the emphasis on the liveliness. But with its dozens of short, stand-alone passages on pieces of boredom, Boredom: A Lively History is better suited for a blog and perhaps even an iPad application—mediums which are more “lively,” since that seems to be the goal here.

The book can be useful for those looking for a starting point on boredom. Toohey is a learned man, and the book’s bibliographic essay, lacking the need to be catchy, is eminently helpful. He also makes the valuable point that North Americans have made free time into work time, with negative consequences. Ultimately, though, the book is doomed by those very traits that can accompany boredom: distraction and caprice. In the final chapter, Toohey writes, “Boredom is a normal, useful, and an incredibly common part of human experience.... I often think that everyone should have more of it and....I also think that everyone should be less impatient with it.” One wishes that Boredom were a bit more focused and, well, boring.

David J. Michael is the editor of Wunderkammer. He lives in Sweden.



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