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BOOK REVIEW

His take on boredom is anything but

By Carmela Ciuraru
Globe Correspondent / May 28, 2011

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Ennui, monotony, tedium — boredom by any other name is just as boring. But as Peter Toohey argues in his new book, this condition can have its benefits.

A professor at the University of Calgary, Toohey looks at the emotion and argues that it is timeless, universal, and may perhaps even have an adaptive value. He defines it in two ways: The first is “simple’’ boredom, which he characterizes as “the result of predictable circumstances that are very hard to escape.’’ (That might mean being stuck at a boring dinner party, or being captive to the chatty person sitting next to you on an airplane.)

The second kind of boredom is existential, and “one whose basis is more intellectual than experiential.’’ It seems to come on unexpectedly, and often its source cannot be traced. When a lack of interest in life (and a chronic sense of restlessness) becomes pervasive, the condition is more complex — mingling with loneliness and depression, for instance.

A late friend of the author offered yet another explanation of boredom, suggesting that it does not exist at all. Toohey recalls that his friend believed boredom to be a “grab bag’’ term encompassing frustration, indifference, apathy, and a sense of confinement. (The word “stress’’ seems similarly a hodgepodge term, meaning many things at once.)

Toohey insists that although it is tempting to define boredom as a modern condition — the result of our multitasking, fragmented lives — it has existed in some form since the beginning of humankind. There may not have been a name for it, yet its qualities are expressed even in ancient texts. (The term appeared first in the 18th century.) He also writes that even though animals lack the “lexical resource’’ to describe that feeling, they certainly experience a lack of stimulation as negative, and may act out accordingly. And Toohey notes that men, who “rely more on external stimuli than do women,’’ may be more prone to boredom.

Chekhov, Flaubert, Turgenev, Ibsen, and Camus are among the writers who dealt with tedium as subjects in their work. Toohey also cites the text “On the Eight Evil Thoughts,’’ by the fourth century ascetic Evagrius, which detailed the malaise known as “acedia.’’ (It is referred to as the “noonday demon,’’ and represents sluggishness and suffering.)

But what about those positive effects of boredom? Toohey regards it as an adaptive emotion, an early call to action, and therefore beneficial. However unpleasant a state it may be, it is not without value. Feeling bored can spur us to travel, to go to an art museum, to visit a friend, to listen to music, to exercise. Boredom is self-protective, warning us that something we’re doing (or not doing) needs to change. It may inspire us to take risks, which so long as they are not dangerous, can prove wonderfully transformative. (A dreary job may push us toward a career shift.)

Toohey quotes the late poet Joseph Brodsky, who reveled in his boredom: “When hit by boredom,’’ he wrote, “let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface.’’

In a financial context, boredom might be best. Toohey quotes Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, pleading in 2008 for more “boring’’ monetary policies in the banking industry. In a business associated with relentless greed and the chasing of dizzying highs, boredom can translate as stability and caution. The author asserts that our relationship to boredom should be recast: “I often think that everyone should have more of it and . . . that everyone should be less impatient with it.’’

As for his engaging new book, Toohey needn’t worry: “Boredom,’’ with its wise insights, is never boring.

Carmela Ciuraru, editor of several anthologies and author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms,’’ to be published in June, can be reached at cciuraru@gmail.com.

BOREDOM: A Lively History

By Peter Toohey

Yale University, 211 pp., illustrated, $26