At the beginning of the first day of my freshman high-school English class, our teacher went to the blackboard and wrote the word ennui. Then she drew a circle around the word; then she drew a slash through the circle. The message was clear: Boredom, lassitude, and adolescent world-weariness would not be accepted in this classroom. I now recognize Mrs. Stebbins’ strategy as a cat-herding tactic, a way to prime a group of kids raised on TV to be interested and attentive to literature, with the added flair of an unfamiliar word. (Unfamiliar to me, anyway.) The irony, though, is that great literature is often filled with slackers, layabouts, and other souls whose drama is born of their boredom. What would Proust have made of this no-ennui traffic cop?
This strange push and pull that boredom has on us—the way it can stimulate and decelerate us, and how we can never quite shake it—drives Yawn, Mary Mann’s brief and lively book of reported sketches on the subject. Mann herself was inspired to investigate after she and her thirty-something friends were lamenting their workaday drudgeries, which is a common affliction: She cites a study that 70 percent of Americans are bored with or actively dislike their job. Worse, the supposed escape hatches from boredom—sex, travel, “adventure” loosely defined—tend to generate their own vortex of tedious clichés. Looking at dating sites, Mann observes plenty of good times of the zip-lines and martini-drinking variety, but rightly points out that “the thing about everyone seeming interesting is that interesting starts to seem boring after a while, or at least like something with too many predictable parts.”
We’re easily bored with “excitement” if we’re too familiar with it—it’s the old nobody-goes-there-anymore-it’s-too-crowded lament. Even that complaint is boring: It’s what the Internet would call a #FirstWorldProblem, and Mann is alert to the ways that boredom is often a function of upper-middle-class existence. Boredom has always been with us, but it reached full flower with the rise of office work and leisure time. It’s the motivating force behind the package tours that British entrepreneur Thomas Cook launched in the 1840s, launching a “tourism economy [that’s] as much about catering to habits as it is about supplying novelty.” It’s the prompt for couples anxious to rejuvenate their sex lives with toys and “7 Ways to Drive Him Wild” techniques, “the Protestant work ethic getting all mixed up with sex.” Presumably a lot of the people who are bored at their jobs are working in industries designed to relieve our boredom.
But boredom-as-affliction cuts across class lines, and Mann points to research suggesting that while boredom is distinct from depression, the two have a nervously close relationship. The former can slide easily into the latter; Mann speaks with Andrew Solomon, author of the superb 2001 study of depression, The Noonday Demon, who sees spates of boredom as an early warning system for more dire feelings. That relationship matters, because it suggests that there are a lot of people on the brink. And it’s on that point that Mann is at her best, exploring the boredom that stalks soldiers in war zones or refugees in camps. Yet expressing that boredom opens you to a culture-wide contempt. She notes a report on Syrian refugees feeling bored in limbo that prompted one commenter to call them “ungrateful people”; another recommended somebody “drop a bomb on the camps.” (Criticizing others’ boredom is as much a #FirstWorldProblem as criticizing your own.)
“Feeling bored doesn’t require any sort of privilege, but doing something about it often does,” Mann writes. But what’s the right thing to do, even if you have the privilege? Mann herself is at a loss to answer the question. Her travels suggest that we humans, being creatures who crave nature and companionship, benefit from “meaning” and “agency” and “narrative” and “purpose.” We’re uplifted by humor and free time and the ability to daydream, or even just the “stuff” that she sees Google employees enjoying on the job. I was never bored reading Yawn, but its wanderings also reflect the impatience of the modern-day ennui sufferer, bouncing from meme to book to interview, leaping from novels to Alaskan cruises to A.J. Leibling to internet porn. I felt, reading it, like I do after spending too long surfing Wikipedia pages or YouTube videos, gorged on data points but foggy with a sense of their disconnection. “Researching boredom meant researching everything,” she concludes. But a tighter culling of material might have focused the story on the roots of boredom, not just the way it constantly stalks us.
But that’s the trouble: Every experience, given enough time, is going to court boredom. (In David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, IRS drones are practically vibrating with it—they’re “wigglers” who labor at “Tingle tables.”) As a culture we celebrate productivity, adventure, attention, novelty. We deliver no-ennui dictats, and even our efforts to relax (mindfulness apps, yoga classes) can feel a whole lot like work. Mann closes on an up note, suggesting that the closest thing to a cure for “the itch, everyday restlessness of this troublesome mood [is] other people.” It certainly seems like a more enduring and less artificial option than the rest of the available choices. But the weariness we feel, it seems, is less something we can conquer than one we have to learn to live with.
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