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BOREDOM: A Lively History


(London Times Review)

It is a brave man who writes a book on boredom. Not just because of the challenge contained within the subtitle of Peter Toohey’s book, but because boredom is such a vast and formless subject, that committing it to print is like trying to stick fog in a box.

Which is not to imply that there’s nothing to be said. As Toohey points out, the British are beset by an epidemic of uninterestedness. A 2009 survey estimated that we spend on average six hours a week being bored ( that’s two years out of a lifetime). Apparently, we’re the fourth most bored nation in Europe, though we rarely admit to it. Children are allowed to be fed up, but adults “ will brag that they never are bored. They are almost always lying”. All those centuries of northern Protestantism and anxious self-improvement mean we see boredom as a failing. Those who are bored must themselves be dull. What they obviously need is a self-improving solution: fresh air, exercise, a richer, brighter cultural life.

Toohey picks out two kinds of boredom. There’s the posh existential form, with French-sounding names such as anomie and ennui, experienced by Ibsen’s heroines and Emma Bovary, and there’s the “simple” form, which the rest of us get. Broadly speaking, existential boredom requires a lot of timeconsuming self-reflection, while simple boredom is the unthought dreariness a child experiences.

Toohey supports his argument with works of great painterly tedium ( Dürer’s bored angels, say) and some real-life examples. He suggests that if you were bored and rich in the 19th century, you were probably a dromomaniac ( a travel-addict perpetually circling the globe in search of stimulation). If you were a jaded colonial Victorian, you tried alcohol and catamites. And if you were bored in the late-20th-century, you filled in something called the Boredom Proneness Scale, a scientific test that rated your state of dreariness to within a decimal point.

Ordinary boredom is now often treated as a kind of gateway state to something far worse — depression, addiction, even early death. A 2010 survey of London civil servants tracked them back 20 years and found that the ones who had reported being most bored were also the most likely to have died young. Humans self-medicate, but a caged or lonely animal will sometimes react to confinement first with anger, then sadness. Birds pull out their feathers, animals bite the bars until their mouths bleed, or rock to and fro, like children in an orphanage.

Normally it’s reassuring when an expert sets out their credentials for a subject, but when Toohey tells us that “ I’ve been bored for very large tracts of my life. Habitually bored”, the information lacks that necessary gladdening lift. He has been bored at work and bored at home. Even self-examination doesn’t help. “ Getting a sense of yourself, paradoxically, can be quite a boring pursuit.”

His alternative is to give in, to embrace his inner bore. We should, he concludes, respect it for being a useful part of human experience, and “ for allowing you to be yourself”. He quotes the poet Joseph Brodsky — “ The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.”

The frustration, though, is not that Toohey has picked a dull subject, but that his approach is so airless. Flicking through other peoples’ books and paintings doesn’t say much about dullness that most readers have not already extracted for themselves. Other people’s experience does. Unfortunately, there is one thing that this book does with impressive efficiency. Every time I picked it up, it sent me straight to sleep.

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