They Do Not Move: Why Boredom is No Excuse

Why bother? The thought entered my mind every few minutes as I stumbled through another page of Joyce’s Ulysses. Simple answer: I was seventeen and wanted people to think I was intelligent. Other sufferings motivated by just such a pretentious goal: Beckett, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Borges, and Nabokov. I’m glad nobody asked me to explain these works. In stable adulthood, most if not all of those authors rank among my favorites, but first introductions were an utter failure. Why?

Because I hadn’t really read them. Words were parsed, a vague storyline decoded, but no real gain from each one, save for bragging rights. To whom? I never figured that out. It was only a year or so later that I realized: the need for me to have read these important books had prevented me from actually reading them, taking care to appreciate the texts in and of themselves. Why had I not given them the attention? Because they were hard. Because they were long. Because, above all, I found them boring. Pages of inscrutable text flew by, eagerly turned in glorious anticipation of that final satisfying thump of a closed tome.

This piece, this essay, is titled They Do Not Move after the stage direction that occurs twice in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, at the end of each act, just after the two main characters have resolved to leave the maddening wasteland of the play and forsake their titular tedium. In the play, this signifies existential paralysis, the obsolescence of attempting action in an indifferent world... any number of things really. Beckett’s works focus on static environments and bored characters. Scenes drag on and ramble. I see Beckett as using boredom as a means to force us into contemplation, to be alone with our thoughts. I’ve appropriated the stage direction as a methodology, a description, for what shifted in my reading habits when I learned to take my time: I did not move. Encounters with boredom stopped being an immediate deal-breaker, as a call to quietly shuffle away and dismiss the writing. No longer would convoluted walls of text, often free of narrative action, get the better of me. One arrogance for another, maybe, but at least playing by the book’s rules. Beckett was perfect as a gateway into my gradual transgression of boredom as an impenetrable barrier, as he intentionally deployed that very reaction in order to write his novels, stories and plays. Because it is such an overriding feeling in his work, gradually one becomes acclimatized to it, and can appreciate the use of non-sequiturs and senselessness for their absurdist reflections of the human condition.

To illustrate further, here is a brief quote from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury:

…I seemed to be lying neither asleep nor awake looking down a long corridor of gray half light where all stable things had become shadowy paradoxical all I had done shadows all I had felt suffered taking visible form antic and perverse mocking without relevance inherent themselves with the denial of the significance they should have affirmed thinking I was I was not who was not was not who.

The young me would have scanned through that, rattling past each syllable, perhaps grasping the general feeling being conveyed, before moving on. What I learned, a practice I still utilize, is to go slowly. Little punctuation? No punctuation? Fine. Walk with the words until they yield. Speaking them aloud is preferable. Gradually, it begins to give. A breathless panic, a breakdown, a decay, all captured in a sentence that requires great attention. The reason I chose The Sound and the Fury to illustrate an early struggle with boredom is that it’s the first book that induced both tedium and a mad desire to understand its intricacies, instead of just wanting to tick it off my list of “books I should read”. Temporal shifts take place mid-sentence with no warning; we are placed into the minds of a depressive genius and mentally handicapped man; stream-of-consciousness holds sway as a narrative method. But the novel is clearly a masterpiece. That tedium, that boredom, transformed before me into something else. It wasn’t that the books were too slow, too complicated, that I was too stupid to process them, but that I had failed to engage on a level deserving of the work. Because of boredom.

But that’s just it. Boredom is a completely natural reaction to a book, a movie, any piece of art. But boredom is not the same thing as failing to understand or appreciate a book. Boredom has become a justification in and of itself. This book was boring. Oh, okay. End of discussion. This will not suffice. Boredom is a lazy excuse. Movies and music are experienced at the pace set by their creators. There is no default speed for reading; it is a uniquely private and demanding art form, requiring us to actively engage with what is presented, to meet it in the middle, in order to elicit meaning. While we may re-watch a challenging art-house movie to further decipher its mysteries, or return again and again to the same album, the actual mode of experience, how we experience a piece of writing, is dependent on us. One could spend an hour reading a page, or ten seconds. The author will never know, will never correct you. It’s an incredibly simplistic point, but often neglected. If it’s taken to heart, that the reader must take time to appreciate a particularly difficult passage, then the experience of reading those huge books, the Joyces and the Tolstoys and the Faulkners, loses some of their daunting opacity. All these books, totems of literary difficulty that we bat away- I’m saving them for retirement- lose their elevation. They are books, simple and wonderful, waiting for the savoring reader.

What exactly is gained from pushing through the boredom? The benefits are legion, both as a reader and a writer. Is there an author whose work you particularly admire, and wish to emulate? Think long and hard over certain sentences, certain scenes, and their structure and devices will yield. There is no better writing class than studying your influences, like a student following the masters. A text cannot be expected to just open up to the reader. Boredom is the dismissive lazy option, to refuse to engage. It has nothing to do with whether the book is good or bad, or even if you enjoy it. If you dismiss it from simple boredom, and have nothing to say about the text to support this assertion... you’re not actually saying anything. To say a text is boring equates to saying you didn’t enjoy it. A valid reaction, but one about the reader rather than the text itself.

Think of boredom as a first step to a delayed pleasure greater than immediate gratification. Like exercise, it gets less strenuous the more you do it, and the pain eventually leads to a more fulfilled and better understanding. With this attitude, boredom becomes a rather wonderful thing. The impossible quest for constant pleasure takes a moment of respite. Initial boredom can be taken as an immense invitation, that beyond the difficulty and the apparent moribund nature of the text, lies something of real worth and interest, something that will lead to a greater fulfillment as a writer, as a reader, perhaps even as a person. Even after all this, you may end up hating the book. Regardless, your critical eye will be honed a little better, and you can talk about the book with more authority, as one who has engaged with the book on its own terms and still found it wanting.

My first experience with that daunting mid-seventies masterpiece, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, was one of stops and starts, constantly perusing a rather invaluable reader’s guide for every page. It took a couple of hundred pages before the book and I managed to “click”, and then the remaining bulk flew by. Here is an excerpt, the first two paragraphs:

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it's all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it's night. He's afraid of the way the glass will fall–soon–it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.

It requires attention to each word and slow reading if one is to not get lost. We are thrown into a descriptive passage of something unexplained. A man is referred to, but not named. No location is given. There is something terrible happening, that seems to be clear, but little else can be identified. It is clarified a little eventually, but not much. The eerie imagery vanishes, as it is a nightmare (though we are not directly told this) of the man in the excerpt. The book is filled with events, enough to fill another volume, but Pynchon has a great knack for compressing vast details – even whole subplots – into compact little paragraphs. As a result, they require close dedication and a focused mind. Even beyond the writing style, there’s a bizarre and labyrinthine plot to negotiate, filled with digressions, hundreds of supporting characters, hallucinatory episodes and sudden jumps between scenes. A running theme in the novel is paranoia... indeed, “proverbs of the paranoid” are deployed throughout. Gradually, the reader learns to draw the disparate story-lines together, to seek connections, to pull things together that don’t appear to belong. In short, the reader is forced to become paranoid themselves. The novel becomes easier; textual trawls become fun and exciting.
What do I mean by relating my individual experience in reading Gravity’s Rainbow? To demonstrate that difficulty, or rather the boredom and frustration one feels in engaging with a difficult text, is not the book’s fault per se. This was very much a book that bored and frustrated me at first. After adopting the attitude that boredom is an asset, rather than a hindrance, I managed to connect with the book. Now it’s one of my favorites. There are thousands of books which could be clearer or better written than they are, there’s no doubting that. Still, when we say “I found this book boring” we are also talking about ourselves, and that is something we have the ability to change.

Boredom, when it results from difficulty, must not be taken as a roadblock to appreciating a novel. Shed the fear, slow down and go at the book’s pace. Take your time, reread if necessary. The understanding and impact will be worth the effort. In moments of frustration, take heart that others have walked the same pathway, the same sentences and paragraphs, and prevailed. The benefits are worth the struggle. As a final encouragement, let us appropriate Waiting For Godot again, stripping away the ennui and futility to read it as a perverse reminder that no difficult work is beyond our reach:

ESTRAGON: I can't go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That's what you think.

Image of Gravity's Rainbow (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Price: $14.95
Publisher: Penguin Classics (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 776 pages
Image of Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts
Author: Samuel Beckett
Price: $11.75
Publisher: Grove Press (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 128 pages
Image of The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text
Author: William Faulkner
Price: $10.20
Publisher: Vintage (1990)
Binding: Paperback, 326 pages
Jack Joslin

Column by Jack Joslin

Jack is a graduate of the University of Warwick. His current project is a surreal biography of the band Paris and the Hiltons. He lives in the UK, where he founded the netlabel Portnoy Records. He can't juggle yet, but really is trying very hard. Often he tells people he's ten feet tall, even when they're standing in front of him, which makes for awkward pauses. He writes incoherent thoughts and opinions at the International Society of Ontolinguists.

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SineadR's picture
SineadR February 23, 2012 - 12:41pm

... but maybe sometimes a boring book is truly boring? Readers shouldn't be cowed into sticking with a book simply because it's a "classic" or part of some notional canon. It's important to ask ourselves why we feel bored. Is it because, as you suggest, we're simply not trying hard enough as readers, or is because occasionally the book just isn't good enough or it's overly pretentious?  We shouldn't be afraid to say if we think a book doesn't cut it because we're scared of looking stupid; the fault isn't necessarily with the reader. 


Jack's picture
Jack from England is reading texts of rejection from pretty ladies February 23, 2012 - 1:21pm

@SineadR (do we perchance know each other?)

Absolutely some books are just, at the heart of it, garbage. The idea of what does or should constitute a canon is a discussion too long for the above piece. Whether or not we should adhere to said canon is yet another.

My thoughts? The canon's not such a bad jump-off point. Other opinions are available. 

Boredom comes in many forms, some more pungent than others. What I'm saying is this: that "it bored me" is a meaningless critique, unless you can say why. Regardless of whether the book is actually terrible, genius but too difficult, something can be gained by attempting to gain through.

Difficult reading and introspection, delicious ingredients of boredom, are drastically underrated tools that can develop and teach the writer's/reader's mind. Painful, yes. But the results are worth it.

SineadR's picture
SineadR February 23, 2012 - 2:40pm

I suppose it depends on why you're reading the book in the first place. Your idea of 'difficult reading' isn't a prospect that fills me with enthusiasm, it all sounds quite Calvinistic and a little joyless. Although you say there's something to be gained from perseverance, it all sounds like rather *too much* hard work for me; I'd rather read something that's absorbing and engaging because, actually, it's also possible for a writer to say interesting and profound things without being obscure. That makes me sound anti-intellectual, but what I'm getting at, is there's a lot of books out there, and if you're powerfully not interested in a book, that's fine. I'm not sure one needs to wrestle too much with the question of why. So you persuade yourself in to reading it a second time... but perhaps you should go with your instinctive reaction and your time would be better spent reading something else. You seem to think the gamble pays off more times that not, but I'm not sure. I think perhaps this is a matter of very different perspectives and we may have to agree to disagree on this one. S x

p.s I think we bumped into each other in the pub one time?

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life February 24, 2012 - 10:05am

This is a very interesting column, although let's not forget the flipside: The elitist who wears the 'boring' book as a badge of condescending honor. The explaining needs to go both ways.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... from I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it. is reading whatever he makes time for this week August 7, 2012 - 12:12pm

I don't think engagement should be the responsibility of the reader alone. To me, this is what is meant by "that book was boring": it failed to engage the reader. Another problem is that you fail to account for the fact that boredom itself is subjective. A friend of mine found Moneyball boring; I found it riveting. Another dug The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. I thought it was pretty but pretentious. I don't recall ever being bored by The Great Gatsby or As I Lay Dying, but Stephen King's work frequently bores me. These reactions are the exact opposite of many I know.

In a world full of more books than many could ever read, is it really realistic to recommend that they slow down to a certain book's "own pace" when there are plenty of novels whose speeds are more similar to the theirs and all you've promised is that, well, there might be something good later?

I don't think so.