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We Have Always Been Bored — 'Yawn' Wonders Why

Boredom is a going concern, particularly in a Western culture over-saturated with things designed to make every moment count. Freelance researcher Mary Mann began writing Yawn: Adventures in Boredom because she was concerned with her own restlessness; was she succumbing to the depression that ran in her family? Was modern malaise taking hold? Was she fundamentally ungrateful for life, as her parents had always suggested about bored people? If she was broken, was there a cure? (And if you're already rolling your eyes at Mann, this is not going to be an easy read for you.)

Last question first: We're all inherently broken, and there's no cure. People have always been bored.

And the moral component of boredom isn't a modern guilt trip. Mann's research traces several fascinating ways boredom has shaped social development and habits (and, sometimes, the other way around). In the fourth century, a monk named Cassian visited the Desert Fathers in Egypt; in recording their quiet habits and seemingly endless contemplation, he also noted "tedium or perturbation of the heart ... one is forever in and out of one's cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting." Several centuries of literary history shove blame back and forth about whether boredom is a male or female failing. In the 1840s, Thomas Cook invented modern tourism as a way to give bored small-town Brits something to do besides drink.

Now, every day brings a new article about how to stop the demon of lassitude, or a new invention designed to keep us from ever being at loose ends again. Using the boredom-sinks in her own life, Mann tries to connect the old with the new: Egyptian monks and cubicle farms (Mann hates them), the literary history of lassitude and the modern sex life (Mann takes her boyfriend to a spice-things-up trivia night), tourism and ... well, tourism (Mann was a kayak tour guide for a while).

Mann can be a thoughtful writer; the chapter on tourism touches on how it functioned as a colonizing force, as Europeans sought out new places and then demanded the comforts of home. But Yawn splits the difference between autobiography and scholarship, and Mann's need to tie things back to her own experience has mixed results. Sometimes she provides a thread to draw you though the meandering moments — glimpses of her family life are poignant — or offers herself as a fidgety proxy for our own self-blame about boredom.

'Yawn' splits the difference between autobiography and scholarship, and Mann's need to tie things back to her own experience has mixed results.

Sometimes it's just baffling; Mann uses an eyepatched library patron as inspiration for a running joke about Stack Pirates that she must think is funny, given how often she returns to it. And sometimes it backfires utterly; in talking about boredom's relationship to crime, she quotes from an inmate's account of soul-crushing solitary confinement, then breezes away from it to the wider idea of boredom as motive for crime, noting briefly that she got a fine for public consumption while researching the book; "I can relate," she says dryly, landing somewhere between tone-deaf and grotesque.

But Mann also manages to avoid the biggest potential pitfall of a book on boredom — she doesn't solve it. Though she finds some answers (boredom isn't depression, because motivation to do something else still remains), this is more an exploration of the inevitable than a mystery with a big reveal. Yawn is deeply interested in connecting the history, psychology, and cultural narratives around boredom; if the authorial presence gets a little draining, well, maybe that's part of the point.

Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.

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