The Uses of Tedium

Rachel Shteir

TWO MILLIGRAMS OF The Big B, the doctor will say not so long from now after you have come in for relief from the Theme Park Adventure that is your life. It will cure what ails your restless iPodded, iPadded, and Kindled existence. Boredom, which begins, as Walter Benjamin put it, when “we don’t know what we’re waiting for,” is now a solution, not a problem. Here is the late David Foster Wallace in The Pale King: “It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” And for the Tiger Mom, accepting the monotony of memorizing multiplication tables leads to … Harvard. “Rote repetition is underrated in America,” she wrote in her infamous Wall Street Journal piece.

Now Peter Toohey has written a short book defending drudgery. Dismissed in the past because it is not a big, passionate emotion like love or hate, boredom, he argues, should be respected and cherished rather than feared and reviled. It is adaptive, “in the Darwinian sense.” Not only can boredom “illuminate certain very famous pieces of art and literature,” but, “boredom has in some ways been a blessing.”  This distinctly un-romantic effort strikingly rejects older philosophical ideas warning that dullness might lead to crime, addiction, or death. “Boredom doesn’t cause anything,” Toohey proclaims. But his book does not merely aim to transform boredom from ugly duckling to swan. It strives to prove that so-called existential boredom might not exist.

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Boredom: A Lively History

by Peter Toohey

Yale University Press, 224 pp., $26

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