July 13, 2017
Mary Mann wants to get you excited about boredom. For her day job she works as a Writing Associate in the Center for Writing, a space where students from all three schools can come for focused attention on putting words to ideas. In her off time she has put her own ideas into a new book, Yawn: Adventures in Boredom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) that explores, through a personal lens, the history, meaning and management of boredom in all parts of our lives: work, sex, travel, relationships, etc.
The subject of boredom first struck her when studying in a graduate writing program. "I was noticing that being boring was something that everyone worried about in their work. Because that's kind of base-line, if you are making anything for other people's consumption. You obviously don't want it to hurt other people's feelings. You don't want it to be offensive. All that stuff. But none of it matters if it's not interesting enough for people to bother to read. Being interesting was paramount. So I started to investigate what is this thing that's so scary."
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first use of the word "bore," meaning profoundly uninteresting, was in 1766. It was related to a very English experience of the French. The word may have come into its more common use 100 years later. "There's been people – and I sort of agree with this – who relate that to the Industrial Revolution," Mary Mann says. "Once you started to have choices in what you could do, then you had to start thinking qualitatively. Why don't I want to do this thing? Why do I want to do this thing? And then these words started to appear: interesting, boring"
Each chapter of Yawn tackles its subject from a different angle through research and interviews. Ms. Mann identifies the first recorded instance of "workplace" boredom in the writings of early Christian monks. This becomes a larger exploration of boredom at work. Later on the relationship between boredom and economics gets examined through the work of an ethnographer in the country of Georgia. In another chapter a veteran of the Iraq war relates the irony of being profoundly bored while in a war zone.
But throughout the book Mary Mann herself remains the central character. Personal anecdotes, like how she watched The Music Man VHS over and over at her grandma's house because there was nothing else to do. "As I started doing interviews it became obvious that being bored or being boring made people feel embarrassed. So, I felt like it was not OK to ask people about this without divulging a little about myself in interviews. They would feel better that way. 'Oh don't worry about it, that happens to me too.' It made sense to me for the book to be that way too."
Ms. Mann says she gets bored with the usual things like paperwork, going through emails and waiting around at the airport. But the process of writing the book has helped her manage it better. "There is the idea that it is like a privilege to be bored. I think it is more a privilege to complain about being bored. There are many people who work in factories or live in solitary confinement. What they do sucks and is boring but complaining about it won't change the situation. Boredom is very associated with being trapped. Being trapped is not a privileged situation."
Even though nearly 70 percent of Americans do not feel "engaged" with their jobs according to Gallup polls, Mary Mann swears she is never bored with her work at the Center for Writing, where she has been employed for a year and a half. "It's been great. The students are awesome. I've actually never worked with non-English majors in this capacity. They're really smart and its really cool to hear their take on literature as engineers or artists, as opposed to people who are only doing literature all the time. I love working at the Writing Center. I actually haven't had a job I have loved this much."