Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Being boring

Since I've recently come once more across the notion, as always so axiomatic as to be an unstated premise, that "being boring" is absolutely the worst possible thing a book can do--accompanied, again as always, with the statement "if I'm bored, I stop reading"--I feel I must protest: being boring is far from the worst thing a book can do.

Admittedly there are many different definitions of "boring" and many different ways in which a book can be boring--I tend to find action-packed novels of the type many would describe as "exciting" to be boring in a very bad way--but this variety just reinforces the fact that "boring," in itself, is not a flaw. Sometimes boring is good, sometimes it's bad--ergo, it's not the boring itself but something else that's the problem.

Off the top of my head, a short list of books I wouldn't have read if I had let boredom stop me:

  • Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
  • Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage (only 2/13 of the way through, and I fully expect to be bored again, but no way in hell am I going to stop reading this vital work)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy
  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation series
  • Those dialogues of Plato which I have to date read
  • Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed
  • Hart Crane's The Bridge
  • Tina Darragh's Striking Resemblance
  • Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men
  • Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun
I hope I need not say that I'm very glad that I did in fact read all of these.

A gander at that list will reveal very quickly that the sources of boredom can be immensely varied. Sometimes a work is boring simply because of length (Wolfe, Robinson). Sometimes it is boring because one hasn't yet learned how properly to read it (Plato, Darragh). Sometimes, yes, it is boring because it is flawed--but nevertheless is worth reading despite/because of these flaws (Asimov, Crane, Le Guin). And sometimes the boredom is a structural element absolutely necessary to the book's very worthwhile endeavor (Richardson, Stapledon). And, of course, sometimes these reasons can overlap: the boredom Darragh causes is a result of both the need to learn how to read her in a way that is not boring and her use of boredom as a structural element; Robinson uses boredom strategically and also writes exhaustingly long works. And so on.

Incidentally, here's a list of works I plan to read in the near or near-ish future which I fully expect to be bored by, and glad of it:

  • Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time
  • Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312
  • James Joyce's Ulysses
  • The rest of Richardson's Pilgrimage
  • Asimov's Foundation again
  • Um, the Bible
  • Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle
  • More Plato
...etc. I've mentioned before Susan Sontag's observation that boredom in books can be a structural element similar to silence in music, and though I have my differences with Sontag I think she's absolutely right with that. To take the extreme example, one of the things John Cage is getting at in 4'33'' is that by placing us in a context in which we expect a musical performance and then giving us no controlled sound, he makes us recontextualize the ambient, uncontrolled noises--the awkward shufflings of confused and, yes, bored spectators, traffic passing by outside, birds, whatever might make its way into whatever space we're encountering the work in--into "art," thereby making us appreciate these sounds in a way we might not have otherwise.* Cage was fond of quoting Érik Satie to the effect that one must leave room in one's music for the sounds of the knives and the forks.

*Brian Eno, apparently, has at times had a somewhat similar, but less performance-oriented, practice wherein he sets up recording equipment in some location--a public park, say--and record whatever sounds might happen to occur for a period of about three minutes, and then listen to the recording over and over again the way people do with pop songs, until he gets to know the "song" in that same intimate way. Many of Pauline Oliveros's wonderful Sonic Meditations get at much the same thing in their very different way.

When I'm bored by, say, a very long science fiction novel, or a lengthy passage of exposition on some subject that doesn't particularly interest me in an sf story, oftentimes I will look up from the page, exasperated perhaps, at which point I sometimes become almost startlingly "re-aware" of the nature of the world around me, the everyday reality through which I move, so different from the world I've been reading about, and this return to consciousness recontextualizes and revitalizes both the world of the story and (more importantly) the real world of living and experience. Though I doubt it had the same effect on the original audiences, something similar happens when Homer describes for the nth time how someone "fell, thunderously, and his armour clattered upon him,"* and I look up, sigh, and realize in some ineffable way far beyond the obvious that--and what it means that--I am so very much not on an ancient battlefield in Ilium.

*As Richmond Lattimore translates him, at any rate. Anybody wanna teach me ancient Greek?

The utter aversion to boredom is, of course, a function of the view that a book's (or any work of art's) fundamental purpose is to "entertain." And though I suppose I technically agree that "entertainment" should not be, in the usual construction of its partisans, a "dirty word,"* I think this exclusive focus on entertainment is, well, a wretched way to go about things. In this view a book is--and can only be--something to fill the time: something to do while you're not working, essentially. And, well, yes, a book is this, in part, for most of us who read them, but it can be so much more. And one thing I absolutely refuse to do is to allow art to be merely something with which I "recharge my batteries" so I can go back to work refreshed and work all the harder for the bosses (and not just because I'm, y'know, unemployed--even if I weren't, hah).

*Whether or not entertainment actually is a dirty word is a question which I will leave unaddressed out of lack of interest.

The villanization of being-boring, too, is I suspect a symptom of our society-wide focus on productivity and speed. That is to say, even when we're not working, our "leisure" activities have to get it done, and get it done fast. The story has to hook the reader right off, in that first sentence. Keep those pages turning until they've all gotten read! Good job! You've accomplished something! Time for another! Boring? Taking a while? Requires effort? Chuck it aside--here's another one that doesn't!

And admittedly I succumb to this essentially consumption-based attitude myself more often than not. (Hell, if I didn't would I keep a list of "books completed" over to the right? More to the point, would I be proud at the rate it grows?) But I think we owe it to ourselves to fight it.

If you're reading a book and it bores you, ask why. Is it because, like those action-packed snoozers I mentioned before, it's sleepwalking through empty clichés that have nothing to say to you? Then by all means chuck it! Is it because it's mired in some received form that is a fundamental betrayal of what it seems to want to say? Chuck it! But is it, perhaps, boring because it's saying something that you haven't yet figured out how to understand? Is it boring because it's difficult? Is it boring because sometimes something boring is necessary in order to lead to something worthwhile? Is it boring because sometimes, perhaps, we need boredom? Rather than requiring the book always to entertain us, perhaps sometimes we must entertain the book--entertain the notion that it might after all have something to say to us, if we know how to listen, and how to be patient.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lovely essay.