Are There Literary Uses for Boredom?

Rivka Galchen and Adam Kirsch discuss whether boring books might serve an interesting purpose.

Comments: 32

  1. I didn't find "2666" boring, at all, but "The Gift" I cannot even finish, because it is SO BORING. I read it sometimes at night before going to sleep. It is just dull. And the author seems to take forever to get to a point, even the tiniest one.

  2. Which "Gift" do you refer to? There are at least half a dozen novels by that title; and please tell me you're not referring to Vladimir Nabokov's early masterpiece!

  3. *2666* isn't boring at all. The first section, the Oscar Fate section, the final section, even the long, numbing section detailing the murders of the women in Santa Teresa, are not "boring." In fact, it's hard to label anything Roberto Bolaño wrote as "boring."

  4. Boredom on the part of authors produces textbooks!

  5. I've read some remarkably interesting textbooks.

  6. Expecting boredom to be inspiring in books, is akin to hoping to derive pleasure from poison ivy in your garden as decorative bush. I couldn't get paid enough to read them.

  7. Just from my own experience, I will distinguish boredom from ennui and frustration.
    Frustration most obviously fits with the question proposed by Mr Kirsch, 'what is this author trying to do that I don't understand?' Sometimes that question can't be answered at this point in one's life; there is such a thing as being too young or inexperienced for a particular book. And sometimes even if you do understand what an author's trying to do, you don't care. James Joyce and David Foster Wallace bore me, not because I don't understand what they're trying to do, but because what they're doing fails to interest me. That doesn't apply to all their works, just Wallace's long novels and Joyce's Ulysses; and I reserve the right to try them again and change my mind. I respect their genius but I don't like their work.)
    Ennui may be more a matter of bad timing and mood: I'd rather be swimming, or sleeping, or having sex, or reading almost any other book but the one in my hands. Even 'Lolita,' which I love, will bore me if I'd rather be reading 'Pet Sematary', which I also love; or vice versa.
    I'm bored in the true sense of the word when my answer to Mr Kirsch's question is 'he's trying to do something I've already seen a hundred better authors do much better; this is third-hand goods, not just mutton sold as lamb but tarted up with carbon monoxide to hide its staleness'. (Having grown up on TH White's Once and Future King, Malory, Shakespeare, etc. - Harry Potter, I'm looking at you .... )

  8. '...I respect their genius but I don't like their work...'

    I don't see their 'genius' and I don't like their work.

    I dislike fantasy literature, but TH White is a different story, as is Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, but then I am partial to Mid-Century British writers.

  9. NM, all fiction is, in a sense, fantasy literature. And some writing that presents itself as 'realist' in setting, character, and event bears little resemblance to any actual people and places, whereas some fantasy/sci-fi writers hit the bull's eye despite superficial dissimilarities to real life.
    Don't like 'fantasy'? Well, there goes the Odyssey, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Dante's Divine Comedy, Shakespeare's Tempest, the last three decades of Shaw ... about the only thing left is instruction manuals.

  10. Why does this paper only solicit commentary from the same narrow band of writers over and over? There are thousands the NY Times could choose from, even if just in New York City and New Jersey. Accomplished, talented, interesting writers with a far richer perspective on such topics than what keeps showing up in this column.

  11. Bull's eye has been struck here. Broadly speaking, I'm only slightly removed from this pool of writers, yet they are insular enough to leave me with a feeling of extraterrestrial origin.

  12. I would never read anything about boredom, so I have no comment on this discussion. But I would like to say that the By The Book interview with William Vollmann is the most pretentious and tedious collection of esoterica I have ever read. He convinced me never to pick up any of his books.

  13. Then you will miss some excellent books. Although I'm not crazy about Vollmann's fiction, his nonfiction reportage/philosophy is without peer in its insight, range, and comprehensiveness. His 'Poor People' is the best extended meditation on the subject I have read. 'Rising Up and Rising Down' is available in a one-volume condensation that is also well worth the trouble.
    Oh well, 'of the making of books there is no end, and much learning increaseth only sorrow'. And the likes and dislikes of some of my fellow bibliophiles, as expressed in the comments (not just today's column, but collectively over the years), would generally make me reluctant to attend a round table with any of them.
    I understand your misgiving, though. I have yet to read one 'By the Book' column that impressed me. It's like meeting your favourite actors offstage, always a disappointment. Probably authors should be known only through their works.

  14. Books that I can not recommend but needed to read and will or have read twice.

    The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas
    Moby Dick
    Capitalism In The 21st Century

    I refuse to continue. The labor or reading and writing.

  15. i liked them both but i found adam kirschs reflections particularly useful in my own struggles with the page - good looking out

  16. Apart from baseball, is there anything on earth more boring than "literature", especially classic literature? Hemingway, Hamsun and Salter I can stay awake for, no one else. How I managed to get through Dickens and Shakespeare in high school is a mystery. Powerfully sleep-inducing stuff.

  17. My favorite quote for all eternity derives from Walter Benjamin's essay on the Russian fairy tale writer Leskov, and it describes the deepest kind of transformative creative process: " 'Lange Weile" - a 'long while,' but which can also mean bordedom in what after all is a German cognate - is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience."
    The Benjamin quote that describes the successful result of such "egg-laying" is: "The finished work is the death mask of the experience." - Obsessive as I can be, too, I can't say I have ever sought to induce boredeom the way that Ms. Galchen has. As to Mr. Kirsch category of happening" , a very wide one for me, it includes what is happening linguistically, I suppose I get bored if the writer is trite - I can think of several NY Times columnists who induce boredom, and not of a Benjaminesque productive kind.

  18. What makes a book boring is:

    1. The writing gets in the way of the story.

    2. There is no story.

    Not Boring, In No Particular Order: Walker Percy, Rumer Godden, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Harper Lee (not going to read her new release!), George Orwell, John Steinbeck (sometimes), Nevil Shute, Graham Greene (sometimes), John Irving (sometimes), Aldous Huxley, JD Salinger (someone thought his books were boring...seriously?).

    Boring, In No Particular Order: James Joyce, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Jonathan Franzen, F Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, John Updike, Herman Melville...too bored to go on.

  19. NM, I love those writers you name as boring! Especially Jonathan Franzen, who sees what is happening to the environment in a way that makes me so nervous that I wish I could be bored.

  20. Oh God help me, Walker Percy is SO boring. What a struggle to get through "The Last Gentleman." Franzen can be irritating, but I haven't found him boring.

  21. Is there any writer whom you do not find boring? Nabokov, Kipling, boring? Seriously? What DO you like? 50 Shades? John Carter of Mars?
    Salinger is not boring, but I do find him excruciatingly unreadable. Here is an essay by Jonathan Yardley from the Washington Post, which I loved - at last, someone who saw in Catcher in the Rye what I saw! The whole thing's worth reading but here's a sample:
    [reading as a teen] 'I shared Caulfield's contempt for "phonies" as well as his sense of being different and his loneliness, but he seemed to me just about as phony as those he criticized as well as an unregenerate whiner and egotist. It was easy enough to identify with his adolescent angst, but his puerile attitudinizing was something else altogether.'
    [re-reading 50 years later] Rereading "The Catcher in the Rye" after all those years was almost literally a painful experience: The combination of Salinger's execrable prose and Caulfield's jejune narcissism produced effects comparable to mainlining castor oil.'
    We need not to confuse boring with bad. Hemingway is just bad.

  22. I am curious why Ms. Galchen has been reading "Harry the Dirty Dog" three times a day on most days for 16 months. Perhaps she volunteers at a school to do reading readiness screening for 4-year-olds. Perhaps she is employed at a university where they are doing some type of psychological testing on young children. I have read "Harry the Dirty Dog" with young children and it is a cute, not boring, children's book, but I shouldn't think anyone would be surprised to find it less interesting after reading it 1440 times in succession.

    In any case, her discussion seems to be about something different that what Mr. Kirsch is addressing, which is what makes a book boring. I will say that most readers today seem to have less patience with books that aren't fast paced than readers did in previous generations. Even our television shows are mandated to feature multiple plot threads; there must be five murders per mystery show where one used to suffice.

    The world is replete with people (usually poor) who find themselves required to perform boring, repetitive tasks to make a living. If they are very lucky, the nature of the boring tasks is such that their mind can wander while doing them. What's lethal is a mind-numbingly boring job that you must actually pay mental attention to. Maybe this is part of Ms. Galchen's point; being bored can prompt your mind to be creative.

  23. Has the letter writer never had a child who became obsessed with hearing a particular book over and over? I have, and knew at once what Ms. Gelchen was experiencing!

  24. Boredom, like beauty, is in the eye of the reader (beholder). If one is bored by some book, classic or modern, fine - don't read it. But don't diss it, either. The beauty of literature is that it is NOT one size fits all.

    And, sometimes, it depends on the reader. When assigned "The Scarlet Letter" in school, I thought it the most mind-numbingly boring horribleness ever wrought. When I reread it in my early 40s, I found it wise and witty. I simply hadn't the life experience to appreciate it in school. Which is sadly why so many classics ought not be taught in middle school or high school.

  25. One last reflection on boredom.
    Yesterday I took out of the local library a story collection that got a recent rave review in the NYT. I settled down this afternoon at the pool to read it. The volume opens with a novella of nearly 90 pages.
    Oh dear God, shoot me. I managed to plough through out of dog-damn stubbornness. But I couldn't tell you anything about the individual characters, who all sort of melted together in a whiny, self-indulgent first-person narrative. Don't ask me to outline the plot; it seemed to me a narrative slumgullion of random events punctuated with cultural and pop-cultural references in a vain attempt to lend concreteness of time and place. There is always a risk in making your narrator a superficial, narcissistic ninny; there's a trick to writing about repulsive characters without repelling the reader, or about boredom without boring him.
    Note that I withheld the name and title. These things are relative, and who knows? You might like it.

  26. Don't ever trust the book reviews of the New York Times...

    At least you got it from the library, and didn't have to pay for it.

  27. It depends on your mindset. If you open 'Moby Dick' expecting to read a suspenseful sea tale about a crazy obsessed man's search for a giant whale, you will probably be bored. If, on the other hand, you know that it's going to be a digressive meditation on the weirdness and terror of the world, then maybe you will, like me, absolutely love it.

    That doesn't mean that I want to read 'Moby Dick' all the time. There are days in my life when I do want that straightforward, vicarious plot, and on those days, poor 'Moby Dick' would probably be boring to me. (The same thing applies to music - you have to encounter the right thing at the right point in your life.)

  28. While Ms. Galchen's essay is a nifty jewel, she has nevertheless (cleverly) dodged the question. Her endless rereading of "Harry the Dirty Dog" is a tedious task, but that doesn't mean the book is boring. The book is part of a ritual between parent and child, a medium for interaction. The story may be inane, but boring? Probably not. (As for "recognition scenes" and allusions to Shakespeare, that's a bit of a stretch. But nicely done. And all neatly tied up with a bow.)

    Mr. Kirsch, on the other hand, hit the nail on the head with "aggressive estrangement" -- an apt label for the experience a reader has when a book does not click. When I read I need to care about something on the page. It might be the structure and art of the writing that keeps me engaged, or the characters, or just the plot. I might even keep reading out of anger (over lazy writing, too-obvious plot devices, insufferable characters). Whatever the level of fiction I take into hand-- old or new, literature or pulp -- I do need some kind of hook to hold me to the final page. If I am "bored," I am disengaged. If I am disengaged, I'm skimming. And if I am skimming I may as well be watching tv. So I'll toss a "boring" book aside and find something that tickles my emotions. That is exactly what I did to one of the most highly lauded novels of 2014, by the way. I thought it stank. So don't listen to me because I am obviously not in the mainstream when it comes to literary criticism.

    My answer: no.

  29. I thought both of the contributors had great things to say (Especially about meditation and boredom!), yet I found it strange that "The Pale King" by DF Wallace was not mentioned, a book which can be neatly summed up in section 45, which ends with the sentence "If you are immune to boredom there is literally nothing you can't accomplish". 'Pale King' continues a main idea of 'Infinite Jest': the desperate need to be entertained. And even though 'Pale King' only mentions meditation once, it's still one of the best books on meditation that I've read.

  30. A good point is made here about books written-in and of-another time. When I was young, those books transported me to another place and time. I find that now, people, especially millennials, are less willing to be transported, if not to another place, then definitely another time. Their obsession with the here and now has made them incapable of relating to something of the past. Even the recent past. I wrote a short story in my writing workshop last year in which the death of Kurt Cobain and the hit song, "Heart Shaped Box" was a unifying point. It both set the tone of the story (perhaps unsuccessfully) and also the time period in which it took place (apparently, also unsuccessfully, as I was asked repeatedly when did the story take place). It was interesting to see how many people said "I could not relate to the Kurt Cobain thing, before my time." I found this interesting since I have always been taught that part of the point of literature was to get you to expand your mind and explore things that are otherwise not immediately available (never been to 1920's Spain or Paris, read the Sun Also Rises.) never been to 19th century Russia read Tolstoy. If American students and readers are incapable or reading about a major musical figure who may have actually lived during their lifetimes, how can they relate to something like Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities?" They either can't, or are not willing to, and are therefore bored when they read it.

  31. "The cloak of splendor," is really saying something, no boredom there. But, if you want to test yourself in survival test mode, be sure to read the Nobel Prize winning, "Magister Ludi," AKA "The Glass Bead Game."

    Dry? Boring? Lengthy? Unbearable? Airless? The list could go on and on, the book took something out me and in a not nice way.

    When in my youth and seduced by Hermann Hesse's other works, I wanted to read the who's-who, of who had won the Nobel Prize. Hesse had won with the Magister Ludi novel. I had to read it. I pushed myself, forced myself to finish reading his unbearable novel, and the breathing space became available only at the very end. The book was completely boring and with a dose of underlying degeneracy especially at the end.

    I take back the recommendation that anyone should test themselves reading that novel, and I would not force myself again for any reason to read boring, dry, literature or listen to boring music etc. Let's be honest, life is far too short.

    Flat writing, Haruki Murakami's novels, for example, have a flat but not boring quality that I especially like, but many people might find his flatness boring. His flatness is atmosphere and airy.

    If a writer can get his or her prose to read like poetry (Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude), so much the better. I think the idea of taking the commonplace, the mundane and raising it to a higher level makes for the best writing of interest.

  32. I think that the whole concept of boredom makes sense only to the privileged few who can afford to be lazy. There is so much work to be done in this world! As the great actor George Burns said once, "Go find the cure for the common cold, jump down Niagara Falls on a rocking chair!" If leisure appeals to you more than work, there are even more options: books, movies, traveling, etc. Being bored while reading a good book, for example, sounds like a paradox to me.