Celebrating Boredom

We’ll look at the history and value of boredom, and why we may need it now.

We’ll look at the history and value of boredom, and why we may need it now.

We’ll look at the history and value of boredom, and why we may need it now.

Life can be very exciting. It can also be boring.

Ancient Greeks knew it. Romans knew it. Monks in the desert knew it.

And on long summer days or Sunday afternoons, in lines waiting, or lecture halls wilting, anyone can know boredom.

We avoid it. But sometimes we may just need it. To escape the clamor and rush of modern life.

We’ll talk with classicist Peter Toohey today about the history and value of boredom. With movie critic A.O. Scott about long boring movies. And with Jonah Leher about boredom as the door to dreams.

This hour On Point: what’s interesting about boredom.

- Tom Ashbrook


Peter Toohey, professor of classics in the Department of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Calgary. His new book is “Boredom: A Lively History.”

A. O. Scott, chief film critic of the New York Times. His article, with Manohla Dargis, is “In Defense of the Slow and Boring.”

Jonah Lehrer, contributing Editor at Wired, Radio Lab, and Scientific American Mind.  He’s author of “How We Decide” and “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.”


Excerpt: Putting boredom in its place


Predictability, monotony and confinement are all key. Any situation that stays the same for too long can be boring. Road trips, gardening and – my own special bête noire – Easter religious services are all fertile sources of boredom. The three of them bedevilled my youth: I had to sit, trapped and wriggling, through the first and third and water the second again and again. A boring person will usually be predictable and repetitive as well, particularly in their speech. Like long-winded lecturers or relatives, the bore’s droning, rheumy intonations don’t seem to go anywhere, or at least not quickly enough. Their repetitive disquisitions confine you in a world of boring words. And time drags to a halt.

William Orpen’s A Bloomsbury Family (1907) captures the excruciating sense of boredom caused by confinement. The family that is pictured is a well-known one: there is the father, the artist William Nicholson, with his wife, the painter Mabel Pryde, and (from left to right) his children, Nancy, who became the wife of the poet Robert Graves, Tony, who was killed in 1918 in the Great War, Ben, the well-known English abstract artist, and Christopher, an architect. But for all those connections, you can almost smell the boredom. William Nicholson presides over the table with the languorous disinterest of a school headmaster. The family either stares off into the middle distance or, like little Christopher, peers wide eyed and pleading to the viewer for help. Tony supports his drooping head with both elbows on the table (a dead giveaway for boredom), framed on either side by those of Ben and his father. In fact there’s lots of framing in this picture – the over¬bearing pictures hanging on the walls, the rigid lines and corners used throughout the painting; and Orpen himself is even reflected in the convex mirror above the fireplace painting the family – this is the fourth wall, which only accentuates the sense of entrapment. Like Orpen, we get sucked into this boring, almost mesmerically dreary scene. You wouldn’t want to be at that table for all the tea in China, or Bloomsbury.

Boredom breeds in stifling homes. Anton Chekhov, the great nineteenth-century Russian playwright and short-story author, mentions boredom more frequently than any other writer I have encountered (perhaps, as a physician, he was more interested than others in what goes on inside the human body) and his plays are packed with confining country homes. Uncle Vanya (1900), published not long before William Orpen painted his picture, is, like so many of Chekhov’s plays and stories, constructed around the theme of boredom. The young, pretty and feckless Yeliena declares ‘I’m dying of boredom …I don’t know what to do’. She speaks for most of the characters in the play – evenings round the dinner table, with the same old faces, on country estates in the long Russian winters of the nineteenth century must have weighed very heavily on the privileged classes. Entrapment and sameness are the causes of this sort of boredom. Situations like these are trivial and are not normally long lasting, and escape eventually provides a remedy. Yeliena and her ageing husband, Professor Serebriakov, bolt from the country estate and head off to town.

Excerpted from Boredom, by Peter Toohey, published May 2011 by Yale University Press.  Copyright © 2011 Peter Toohey.  Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

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