The Year in Boredom

From Hurricane Irene to Steve Jobs, it’s been a renaissance.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2011.
Steve Jobs was a big believer in boredom

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Last month, as content producers and Apple consumers memorialized Steve Jobs, I watched thousands of people seize on a thought he’d once shared with Wired’s Steven Levy. “I’m a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity.”

Last week, sorting out some thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, I grazed a few back issues of Adbusters, the magazine that called the players in this street theater of protest to the stage. “APOCALYPTIC BOREDOM” blared the headline of its July/August issue, describing, perhaps without intention, a condition necessary for a certain sort of youth revolt.

Last Monday night, I was stuck in an underground elevator. There was no need to panic—oh, how we longed for a rousing dose of panic!—and I continued gathering a few idle thoughts. With seven weeks left until the ball drops in tiresome Times Square, I am antsy to suggest that 2011 has been a fascinating year for boredom.

The Wall Street Journal
set the monotone late in December with reporter Gautam Naik’s dispatch from Boredom 2010, a London conference where speakers delivered papers including “Like Listening to Paint Dry” and “The Draw in Test Match Cricket.” The piece noted that boredom “has become a serious subject for scientific inquiry.” Indeed, take a look at recent academic studies indebted to the Boredom Proneness Scale and the legitimate nutritionists advocating “meal monotony” as a way to get thinner. Surely such topics will be much in the fetid air later this month when Boredom 2011 unfolds at a snail’s pace.

What sort of weather should we wish upon the attendees? A classic drear of English rain would seem to have a nice pathetic fallacy to it, but a small meteorological catastrophe could also be thematically appropriate. Boredom is among the happier fates that very exciting weather can visit upon you. The blizzards of 2011 encouraged the maturation of a new subgenre of YouTube clips. Call it snowsuit exhibitionism. Themes common to such micro-documentaries include shaky surveys of blank landscapes, moaned reiterations of restlessness, and the overall oversharing of a snow-day dull haze. Give or take the lively Snowpocalypse clips that find dudes diving headlong in snow banks, these short films share a listlessness. Weather-enforced torpor is deeply lyrical.

I can already hear some readers scoffing, “Wait! You’re arguing that it takes a real poet to do boredom justice? P-shaw!” Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have a real poet right here. After Hurricane Irene, on the blog of the New York Review of Books, Charles Simic wrote of experiencing “a kind of high school reunion with boredom” while his power was out for three days. Simic goes on and on about how much he owes to his teenage boredom: “Drowning in it, I came face to face with myself as if in a mirror. I became a spectator of my own existence, which by turns struck me as being either too real or totally unreal. I recall one day being absolutely sure that time had stopped, despite the loud ticking of the clock in my room.”

There are a few ways to respond to this: A) You can perk up. B) You can zone out. C) You can compare it with one’s own Irene experience. For instance, we unsatisfied customers of New York City’s Time Warner Cable have a channel called City Drive Live, which airs static black-and-white live footage of major arteries across the five boroughs, and there was a sublime dullness, during the Irene, to watching rain drum on empty grey roadways. It was like watching paint not dry. D) You can pose Simic the impertinent question that one commentator did when the Guardian reposted his piece: “Have you tried class-A drugs?

“Drugs and their comforting spirituous oblivion have always been one of the most efficient means for ridding a person of a bad dose of boredom.” So wrote Peter Toohey in Boredom: A Lively History, published in May by the Yale University Press. This was quite a thoughtful book, one which took care to distinguish “common boredom” (“the result of predictable circumstances that are very hard to escape”) from “existential boredom” while tracking the field of boredom studies out to the endless horizon. Fans of the Royal Wedding’s “frowning flower girl” should check out Toohey’s riff on the commonest visual signs of boredom, chief among them being “elbows that rest on flat surfaces” and “hands that support heavy heads”: “If you are having a cup of tea with someone who has slowly sunk into this posture, then don’t ask them what’s wrong. Stop talking about yourself.”

Boredom is none too dull, despite Toohey’s occasional attempt to give his subject a mimetic treatment. For instance, he takes the position that boredom is, like disgust, an adaptive emotion designed to warn us away from poisonous situations. Thus, on Page 15, he writes, “disgust is an inherent aspect of the boredom brought on by predictability and repetition.” And later he writes that boredom “protects us in the same way that disgust does.” And later he writes, “disgust and simple boredom both keep people clear of toxins.” And later he writes, “Boredom, as has been seen, is an emotion connected to the primary emotion of disgust.” And later he writes that boredom, “like disgust” is “an adaptive emotion.” And so on, ad nauseam.

In my own field of journalistic criticism, people are doing unspeakably dull things all the time, and they always will, but Dan Kois added a new wrinkle in late April with a New York Times Magazine essay confessing his fatigue with attempting to enjoy long, slow movies. The piece reverberated for weeks in many ways, most of which will put most noncritics to sleep. For a quick overview of the matter, listen to this NPR segment, titled “Celebrating Boredom.” Public radio is obsessed with boredom, as this Apr. 1 Marketplace story about ennui attests. Make of that what you will.

Perhaps the biggest event to rock the dull-as-a-stone world this year was the publication of The Pale King, the uncompleted David Foster Wallace novel. Among its theme, according to a note left with the manuscript, is that bliss “lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” I would dwell upon the subject, but there is evidence that Slate’s readers are fed up with our discussions of Wallace’s talent and his legacy. They have experienced “the boredom of surfeit” (to quote the philosopher Lars Svendsen), and they have expressed it in our comments section. Not incidentally, I will observe that leaving comments on the Internet has an aspect of graffiti-writing to it, and that according to Toohey, one important early mention of boredom occurs in a graffito scratched on the walls of Pompeii: “Wall! I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.” Blah blah blah blah blah.