Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind

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9780226768533: Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind

This book offers a witty explanation of why boredom both haunts and motivates the literary imagination. Moving from Samuel Johnson to Donald Barthelme, from Jane Austen to Anita Brookner, Spacks shows us at last how we arrived in a postmodern world where boredom is the all-encompassing name we give our discontent. Her book, anything but boring, gives us new insight into the cultural usefulness—and deep interest—of boredom as a state of mind.

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From the Back Cover:

As malady or inspiration, boredom looms large in our culture. Forever egging the writer on to new feats of interest, new forms of poetry, new, more engrossing ideas and creations, boredom both haunts and motivates the literary imagination. This book offers a witty literary explanation of why this should be. Investigating boredom's imaginative functions during the last two and a half centuries, Patricia Meyer Spacks reveals the shifting cultural purposes served by this often lamented state. The figure of the "bore" entered the language in the eighteenth century, marking, Spacks suggests, a significant cultural shift. Until then boredom, though not explicitly classified as a sin, was to be strenuously resisted by spiritual endeavor. With the coming of the "bore", however, the responsibility for boredom shifted from the bored observer to whatever failed to hold his or her interest. Progress should banish boredom by making life more stimulating. What such a move meant, in society as well as literature, becomes clear in the astonishing range of fiction, poetry, conduct books, letters, and historical and sociological documents Spacks surveys. Here we see how the idea of boredom - as a point of reference or focus of opposition, as a means of characterization, repudiation, or definition, as social indictment or personal grievance - condenses a wide range of crucial meanings and attitudes. From the gendering of boredom (how women's lives came to embody both the threat of boredom and its overthrow) to canon issues (how "boring" becomes "interesting" with a sympathetic reader), the implications of the subject steadily enlarge. Moving from Samuel Johnson to Donald Barthelme, from Jane Austen toAnita Brookner, Spacks shows us at last how we arrived in a post-modern world where boredom is the all-encompassing name we give to our discontent. Her book, anything but boring, gives us new insight into the cultural usefulness - and deep interestof boredom as a state of mind.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Lively enough, in contradistinction to its subject, this workmanlike volume of literary history traces the underexamined phenomenon of boredom. Boredom, Spacks (Gossip, 1985; English/Univ. of Virginia) informs us, is a social construction of recent vintage. The figure of ``the bore'' first appeared in the mid-18th century; the idea of boredom emerged, like the novel, in the wake of early modernity's development of the concept of leisure. Boredom and popular writing have intimate links: Writers seek above all to be interesting (i.e., not boring), and readers follow their interests in reading, evading boredom. Not coincidentally, boredom has long fascinated popular writers as a subject. Spacks builds on these observations in developing her history of boredom in English literature. Reconsidering narration as a strategy for reclaiming life from boredom, she discusses how a wide variety of 18th-century fiction and correspondence treats that state of mind. Her investigation reveals that boredom often masks more pointed discomforts, even serving as a subtle form of aggression against resented environments. A look at how Jane Austen disciplines her title character in Emma provides a case study in what Spacks calls ``the normalization of boredom.'' As sociology has charted the spread of boredom through society, writers have continued to explore the implications of its pervasiveness and to mount resistances to it. In her final chapters, Spacks considers boredom in the context of works by such authors as Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Donald Barthelme, and Anita Brookner. However, the interest/boredom opposition, always fairly crude, seems especially inadequate for describing modern fiction, with its self-consciously alienating effects. Her discussion also lacks a real reckoning with the entertainment marketplace's appeals to (and cultivation of) boredom in the consumers of its stimulations. Nevertheless, Spacks opens up promising ground for further investigations. Perhaps a new academic subdiscipline might be in order: Anyone for Boredom Studies? -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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