Every reader has an archetype of boredom, which every writer fears to realise: a book as thick as a stack of freshman essays, as dim and grammarless as a headache, every phrase a phrase of a certain age, every page only page two. Writers will do much to avoid reminding their readers of possible connections between their own work and this nightmare ideal, sometimes going so far as to pretend that it does not exist, an approach not invariably successful. The more sophisticated, frequently more courageous, have discovered in boredom a subject of intense interest; but of course part of the excitement has to do with the contest between the writer and his cunning antagonist, together with the gruesome possibility that the work won't make it out alive. An aphorism on boredom might hope to escape the slow, dumb mumbling of its subject. But to carry off an entire volume devoted to a condition about as definite as a mud puddle in a flood - this feat requires extraordinary qualities, such as have preserved from fractious tears countless children on countless rainy afternoons and have enabled novelists and other practitioners of culture to persist and thrive in the face of what Patricia Meyer Spacks calls 'psychic entropy'. One of the oddities of Boredom is that, having amassed evidence of its subject's profundity and pervasiveness (what could be more profound or more pervasive than entropy?), the book remains at bottom unconvinced that the phenomenon is anything more than an artefact of pampered cultural imagination. The contest is oddly calm.
LRB 19 October 1995 | PDF Download