BOREDOM by Patricia Meyer Spacks


The Literary History of a State of Mind
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 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?

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-226-76853-8
Page count: 289pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1994