Mark Edmundson Demonstrates Boredom

Writing in The American Scholar, Mark Edmunson has a common complaint: boring people can be very difficult to get rid of. The problem is, he spends some 5,000 words trying to decide what motivates a bore and in the process put me to sleep.

There are a couple of things you can get from an article such as Edmunson’s, from interesting facts about the subject to entertaining anecdotes told in a strong auctorial voice. This article lacks all of that. It meanders along, combining overwritten stories from Edmunson’s life with quotes from people like Graham Greene and Groucho Marx. One paragraph in particular caught my eye.

In his essay on talkativeness, Plutarch suggests that the bore, despite appearances, may often be out to win the esteem of the victim. The words are an offering. They come as something like a sacrificial tribute. Whatever the surface flow may be, the subtext reads like this: I care about your judgment; I want your esteem. I want to show you how smart I am, how learned, how good. Schopenhauer, Lord of Pessimists, seems to concur on this view: “Vain people are talkative, and proud, taciturn,” he says. “But the vain person ought to be aware that the good opinion of others, which he strives for, may be obtained much more easily and certainly by persistent silence than by speech, even though he has very good things to say.”

Summing up: bores want to show you how smart and learned they are. To prove it, here’s support from Plutarch and Schopenhauer!

The whole essay could have ended after the second paragraph, where he brings up the obvious rebuttal and dismisses it. I happen to agree with him: he should have defended himself better, or found coping strategies that allow him to escape. But I could be misreading Edmunson’s objectives. This essay could just be an extended example of the “show, don’t tell” dictum. Why read something exciting or entertaining about boredom when you can instead be bored by it?

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