The Uses of Boredom: Reprise

An earlier version of this week’s reprint appeared in July of 2009.  It tells the story of how and why I became a reader.  And it asks: how do we learn to like challenging tasks if we live in a world where boredom is impossible?

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boredomI became a reader because I was bored.

I learned to read when I was about four years old, but, like many children, I read only picture books until I was about seven. My parents brought me to the library every two weeks, and I filled up on library books at school as well, but picture books didn’t last long; I ended up reading them over and over because we had limited television options and, of course, no computer. (I was also a clumsy child with seasonal allergies who didn’t like to play outside.)

I occasionally glanced at the library shelves full of books for older children, and sometimes took one down to page through it, but I was intimidated. They were so thick, and if there were illustrations at all, they appeared only once a chapter or so. These “chapter books” seemed like too much work.

Every summer, we loaded up the car and drove for what seemed like months, but was probably about five hours, to our summer house to spend two or three weeks. Before leaving town, we took a special trip to the library to take out an extra-large stack of books on extended summer loan.  The summer I was seven, my mother used part of her precious borrowing allotment to take out a few “chapter books” for me. “But I don’t like chapter books,” I said. She ignored me.

I read through all my picture books in the car on the way to the coast, and even dipped into some of my brothers’ horror comics to pass the time. (They both suffered from carsickness, and so most of the reading material was mine for the duration of the trip.)  Then we arrived, and for two weeks, I had to keep myself entertained.  At the summer house, we had no television, and a seven-year-old, even one who likes math, can only play cribbage for so long. We found things to do: there was a tree behind the house full of fascinating fuzzy yellow caterpillars; there was a rusted old bedspring in the next lot that we liked to bounce on (and somehow none of us got tetanus); our parents took us to the beach or the nearby swimming hole every second day; and the blueberries needed picking and eating.

But then it rained. We were stuck in the house, lying on the creaky couch in the living room. We groaned and rolled our eyes at the tedium. We pressed our noses against the glass to make interesting smudges or write in the steam from our breath.

And then I saw, on the endtable, the little stack of “chapter books” my mother had brought for me.

I picked one up and leafed through it. I don’t remember what book it was, but there was a full-page woodcut at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest of the pages seemed dense and busy with text. The first woodcut was of two boys and a girl, maybe brothers and a sister just like my brothers and me. And there was a duck, I think. The duck caught my interest.

It was still raining. I started to read.

I read that entire book that afternoon, and started another after dinner. When bedtime came, I hid in the bathroom with that book until my parents threatened to shut down the power if I didn’t turn out the lights and go to bed.

The experience of being entirely transported into another world was one that would shape the rest of my childhood and adolescence. Until I pursued an English degree at university and ruined it all, reading became the most important activity in my life.  I might never have found it if we’d had cable TV, video games, or Internet access at that summer house.

These days, I marvel at those of my students who read for pleasure. These kids have no memory of a world without computers or cell phones. There are myriad forms of instant gratification available at their fingertips at all times. Even so, some of them still love reading. My IB students and I had a discussion last term about the future of the novel, and they rhapsodized about books; Anny told us that her bookshelf is near her bed and sometimes she’ll pull the books out and smell the pages because they make her so happy.

Most of my students, however, have no interest in reading, and I have to say that I don’t blame them. Even I don’t read for pleasure much any more, especially fiction – I watch television and films, read blogs online, and listen to nonfiction as podcasts and audiofiles.  I’m a writer and English teacher, and was a voracious reader from the age of seven. If I’m not reading, what chance do my overstimulated students have, especially if they’ve never been bored long enough to reach out to a book they might normally not be bothered with?

A colleague and I were discussing his children one day, and he said that he and his wife had been debating the restrictions they should place on computer use and television viewing. He said that during their conversation, he’d had a revelation. “I want my kids to have the chance to be bored,” he said.  How much creative discovery has taken place because a child or an adult was trapped inside on a rainy day and all the picture books had been read, all the video games had been won, or the cable had gone out? How much more would teenagers learn about themselves if they put their cell phones away for a few days at a time?

We could argue that kids go to school, so they know plenty about boredom. But would they be able to make more use of the “boring” hours they spend sitting at a desk if they had more chances, on their own time, to lie on the couch, look around the room, and find something new to read? If they spent more time wandering through the woods, picking up sticks to use as toys, or examining the insides of flowers?  Some of my most stimulating memories of my childhood are of doing these kinds of things, and some of the most interesting people I know, young and old, grew up in environments where there was no, or limited, access to televisions, computers, game consoles, etc. They got bored, and they had to do something about it.

Most importantly, someone was there to hand them a book, a chemistry set, or a basketball, and say, “See what you can do with this.” Is this what’s missing from many of our kids’ lives? Is this what Anny’s parents did – turned off the television, handed her a book, and said, “Try this on”?

My greatest fear is not that many young people will never learn to enjoy books, although I do think that’s a shame. My greatest fear is that many will never discover things they could really love, things that could make them better, happier people, because they’re filling their time with easy distractions.

I love easy distractions as much as the next person, and you are as likely to find me checking Facebook and playing Plants vs. Zombies as reading a novel these days. But at least I had a chance. What chance do some of these kids have?

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15 responses

  1. Awesome thoughts, once again. Most of the technological distractions we have these days cater to those who are lazy and easily amused by the most menial things. Because reading a novel takes way too much time, you know? It’s easier and requires less effort to play Angry Birds or scroll through humor websites instead of reading 500 pagers. One of my wishes for my generation and for those to come is that the pleasure of reading doesn’t die down and become one of those things that defines a modern nerd. My education after high school consisted of reading books, articles, blog posts, and essays, and conversing with people. Reading is super important, and it’s also super fun if you find the right stuff to read. Cheers.

    • There’s a threshold to how much Angry Birds and such and such can be played before you are so bored you can’t play any more, I think. Though I agree with Siobhan’s idea of creating space for boredom. I had so much free time at one point that I played video games until I got sick of them, and after that started reading a lot more.

      Guilty pleasures spaced out over long periods of time are horrible (i.e. social games that only let you play a certain amount of time each time, and reward you for returning the next day), because they never let you play long enough that you fully realise that they’re stupid (much like if you drink too much soda, soda tastes horrible afterwards).

  2. I burst out laughing when you said kids know about boredom since they have to go to school all day. Boy, do I get sick of hearing how boring they think it is!

    I was raised by a woman who thought the words “I’m bored” coming from her child’s mouth meant they needed something to do. She gave us another chore anytime we said the words. Believe me, I learned how to self-entertain pretty quickly because dusting, or scrubbing toilets, or washing walls, or pulling weeds just didn’t interest me. Parents today need to play a more active role in getting their kids to find interests other than gaming and surfing the net. I know I encouraged my sons to try new things and I still think they are too tied to electronic games.

    I’m sad that people aren’t reading as much anymore. Not just because I’m a writer either. Some of my fondest memories are of imaginary places and people. Wow! That sounds pretty geeky. I’m a word nerd and a book fanatic. Is there a 12 step program available?

    Thanks for another insightful post.

  3. I didn’t read this post previously, so thanks for putting it out there again. I remember my days in your summer home. It was the loveliest of times, and it was usually around berry picking time. I also loved it because there were books everywhere! During my teen years we did have a television (with two channels) but I loved to read because, as you say, you were transported into a whole new world beyond the confines of ones own home. I read many biographies and novels – even Shakespeare and Encyclopedia Britannica, but not so today. Today I will read everything but “chapter books”. I blame it on my very short attention span that has been influenced by the quickness of the internet. I read an endless varity of magazines from “People” to “National Geographic” to “Watercolours” to “Discovery”! Once every ‘blue moon’ I’ll pick up a novel or biography and dig my teeth into it,
    I know several young people who love to read, one of them is my 19 year old ‘grandson’, Brandon. He has continuously amazed me by reading large ‘chapter books’ since he was seven years old. He has had access to the internet all during this time but still managed to retain an interest in books.
    Every generation seems to have concern for the next with respect to reading and learning, but each generation seems to go beyond the previous in most respects, so maybe it will happen again even with all the distractions!

    • TruVei: It’s true, we’re always worried that “kids these days” aren’t getting what they need because they’re not doing what we did. The truth is, I loved to read and so did my friends, but I know plenty of people who didn’t and who turned out totally fine!

  4. Yes, it’s worrying that today’s kids can’t seem to alleviate boredom unless there’s something electronic involved. Our eldest son had to have books (and still does) with him at all times or else he’d become very difficult to be around. I haven’t graduated to an e-reader, still like heavy hard backs..

  5. I read because it’s faster than watching something. I sometimes get very impatient with how slowly events unfold on the screen. And it’s harder to skip the boring or unimportant parts because you can’t see just from the image alone what will be interesting and important again. I think a generation raised on constant stimulation of one kind or another may start to realize it isn’t so stimulating after all.

  6. I’m not sure. I’m definitely with ashanam on wanting transcripts of audio or video because it gives me more choice as to whether I want to immerse myself or just skim along and get the general idea. I wish we had more opportunity to study film as literature in public school, because the choices made by a director about how to portray the story are so striking. With text, when you’re talking about metaphor and symbolism, each reader has his or her own “mental picture.”

    Just some Friday ponderings :)

  7. I was never intimidated by “chapter” books because to me each chapter represents a very manageable unit of, say, ten or twenty pages. If I have 30 minutes or an hour with which to read at the end of the day, I will eventually reach the end of the book. Most of my reading is largely seasonal. As an English teacher, I do little of it outside of summer (except for my book club) but then I will burn through ten or more.

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