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In Praise of Boring Books

By Alice Jolly.

In all honesty, I am a little frightened of the modern reader. I envisage him as a red-faced man standing in his hall viciously shaking a brand-new vacuum cleaner. This vacuum cleaner is not working. On the packaging it claims that it will suck up dust. What in God’s name is the point of a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t suck up dust?

Books, like vacuum cleaners, are increasingly judged on their ability to deliver what they appear to offer. They are consumer products. The customer has paid and must get what he wants. Pity the writer who falls foul of the vacuum cleaner purchaser. A filthy review on Goodreads is likely to follow.

Of all the reviews that writers dread probably the worst is — this book is boring. Consequently, in creative writing workshops, red pens hang over the text ready to point out where the pace of the work slackens or wanders. In publishing houses editors slash through swathes of text. I mean, what the f*** is this? Literature or something?

Such is the writer’s fear of being described as boring, that we rarely ask what exactly such criticism might mean. Does it mean that the book doesn’t move forward quickly enough? Or that it is full of minor details which do not seem to be relevant to the story? Or possibly that the characters don’t interest us or that they lack ‘agency.’

Recently, I have started to ask whether the meaning of ‘boring’ has changed over time? I suspect that it has. In fact, it seems to me that the very concept of a boring book might be relatively modern. In my teenage years I accepted that some books — or sections of books — were boring.

I was brought up in the country and it was two miles to the nearest bus stop. The internet did not exist. Televisions had four channels. So reading was what you did — for hour after long hour. All I was going to do when I finished one book was to start another so what did it matter how long a book took to read?

I remember the infinite (and mildly pleasurable) boredom involved in reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I was stuck in provincial France for weeks. It never occurred to put the book down. Henry James was next on the pile and I already knew that he was unlikely to crack on at any greater speed.

Then I reached the end of Madame Bovary and suddenly I got it. Suddenly I knew. Madame Bovary is about a woman who is driven mad by the tedium of her life. The book would not have worked if the writer had simply summarised that life. I needed to live through that life and I had done. That meant that, when the brutal end came, I was trapped inside the experience and there was no escape.

It turned out that every word of the book was necessary, everything made sense and everything seemed both surprising and inevitable. I was left knowing that Madame Bovary is extraordinary, one of the best books I had ever read. But I had to face up to the fact that for long passages I had also been bored by it. Was it possible for a book to be boring and brilliant? Clearly it was.

Then I grew up and the world moved faster and, little by little, along with the rest of the world, I began to turn into the female equivalent of the vacuum cleaner man. In both my writing and my teaching, I fight vigorously against the idea of the book as a consumer product, but capitalism has affected me as much as anyone else. I paid for this, I want this.

I started putting books down. Lots of them. I am not apologising for this. There is no crime in deciding not to continue with a book. But it did worry me that my attention span was clearly getting shorter. I might shake my head and use grand phrases such as ‘the weakening of the reading culture’ but I knew that, in truth, even an avid reader such as myself can fall into the Black Hole of Netflix.

But now? Now? Lockdown has taken me back to my teenage years — despite the fact that, in reality, I have continued to teach and write, plus also organising home schooling. Still, I have often found myself collapsed in a chair for long hours, reading. I have also started to suffer from insomnia. Suddenly, Flaubert and Henry James, have started to look attractive again.

In this spirit, I sat down to read The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth. The beginning of this novel is stunning but after that first exquisite set piece, the novel turns into Madame Bovary. This time it is all military men in barracks in far flung parts of the Hapsburg Empire in the early 1900s. The descriptions of place are wonderfully vivid but the main character is not interesting.
As in my teenage years, I never thought of putting the book down. Surely it might work for insomnia at some point? As I read on, I also began to analyse what actually happens to the reader once she has stopped shrieking at the misdescribed vacuum cleaner? First, a moment of surrender. We settle in for the long haul. Then comes a willingness to look at what the book is offering, even if we don’t really want what it is offering.

We begin to consider whether those meticulous descriptions are in fact highly relevant to the story? What lies behind them? How do they work? We also listen more attentively to the language, we are obliged to tune into the rhythm of the book, to listen to its heartbeat. The slowness of the writer’s looking means that we must slow down and look as well.

As with Madame Bovary, I entered the world of the book — totally and completely. ‘World building’ is acknowledged to be important to the modern novel but how often do we actually read a contemporary novel which really situates us imaginatively in another place? Might it be the case that actually ‘world building’ cannot be achieved in a few sentences?

Anyone reading The Radetsky March must also confront the issue of repetition. Like the military manoeuvres that it so tirelessly describes, the novel goes round and round the same situations again and again. This would never happen in a contemporary novel. As the novel progresses, the great Austrian Empire starts to collapse. These military men are losing the whole purpose of their existence, but they carry on just the same.

By the time I finish the book, I know that I have read a masterpiece. But what actually happened? Not much. So why then am I still puzzling over the book for days and weeks after I have laid it aside? Eventually I figure out that The Radetsky March strikes such a wonderfully dissonant chord precisely because it is about the failure to change.

On the one hand, this places the book absolutely at odds with our modern world. The modern novel — and indeed modern life itself — is about change, agency, decisions, progress. Even though, in theory, I do not accept this view of the world, I nevertheless ask my students: what has changed here, how has this character developed? Joseph Roth was certainly not asking these questions.

So why, then, has his novel taken such a grip of my mind? Is it, in fact, absolutely a novel of the moment? Are we all not currently also stuck in cycles of repetition? The world is changing dramatically all around us and we cannot adapt or respond. Like Roth’s characters, we receive cataclysmic news but we just keep doing the same things that we have always done.

Strangely, this also means that The Radetsky March is a comforting novel. As we come to understand it, so we forgive ourselves for our current failures. The reality is that human beings are not actually good at change. The modern novel tells us that we all have agency but most of us don’t. Or if we do, we fail to use it.

Could it be that in reading books which are sometimes as dull and frustrating as our own lives, we are comforted? We step aside from the modern idea of progress, achievement, goals. Time slows down, life becomes gloriously long. If we sink into the boredom, what then might be revealed?

I am always interested in information which comes from The Reader Project in Liverpool. That Project organises reading groups for people in challenging circumstances — prisons, hospitals, care homes. The Project reports that reading the classics can help to cure depression but the same is not true of the modern novel. Interesting isn’t it?

I am starting on lesser-known Henry James novels. The long haul. There will be some boredom but I know that those moments may be necessary in order to set the stage for the flashes of brilliance which will also be revealed. I have also googled uses for non-functioning vacuum cleaners. Apparently, you can use them to make a lamp, or a plant pot, or a spaceman fancy dress costume. Strange things you find out when you don’t get what you want.

Alice Jolly’s most recent novel Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was runner up for the Rathbones Folio Prize in 2018. Alice has also won the Pen Ackerley Prize and the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize. Her short stories have appeared in Prospect, Ploughshares, The Manchester Review, Litro and Fairlight. She teaches creative writing at Oxford University.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 22nd, 2021.