Boredom, the Tradition of Being Dull (or The Tradition of Boredom), and Originality
DFW’s novel about a group of IRS agents attempts to tackle the topic of boredom in perhaps what is perceived to be one of the most boring of professions: that of the tax accountant. I say “perceived to be” boring because it is the profession that Wallace chose as the center of his novel and being a right-brain person I perceive most left-brain activities to be innately boring when they don’t require the right brain’s functions.
Though in thinking about why DFW decided on accounting as a profession to analyze boredom, why he took classes in accounting as prep, I start with a theory I call the “Tradition of Being Dull.”
This tradition is one where an institution believes that being professional means being humorless, dry, tedious, by-the-book, repetitive, uninteresting, characterless, bland, bromidic, humdrum, lifeless, mundane, stodgy, unexciting, tame, wearisome, and generally un-creative.
An example from my personal experience is when I suggested books for the freshmen summer reading.
I recommended Jon Stewart’s “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction” and Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America (And So Can You!).”
Both are public figures popular among the freshmen student population and both bring attention to news events that frosh most likely would not have heard about otherwise – the results of last year’s Pew Survey showed that watchers of their respective news shows are more aware of current events than viewers of “real” news channels.
The Colbert Report 34%
The Daily Show 30%
News magazines 30%
O’Reilly Factor 28%
Lou Dobbs Tonight 27%
Daily newspaper 22%
NBC News 21%
Larry King Live 19%
ABC News 19%
(My summer reading was a book by Fareed Zakaria, and his network (CNN) ranked at least 15% below Stewart and Colbert, who broadcast for only an hour four days a week.)
Fox News 19%
Personality magazines 13%
Religious radio 12%
CBS News 10%
National Enquirer 9%
Considering it’s the last summer before college, providing relief with comedy would ease the transition better than some dry work that probably won’t get read by most students (and if the books aren’t read by the majority, hasn’t the school poorly invested money?)
And though there is data from a respected survey to back up making the decision to make the summer reading something that will more likely be read, the deans respond by saying “we need something more serious.” And thus the deans enforce the Tradition of Boredom even though it may be costing them money.
On the flipside, The Office acknowledges the Tradition of Boredom and changes one element: it makes the tedious humorous. There is nothing more bland or unfunny than paper products. The writers for the show acknowledge this and their success is the result of bringing jokes into a setting that is usually humorless — this element occurs within the show and in the general idea of why The Office would be entertaining: the audience sees a familiar place and reacts to the silliness of the familiar being broken, and within the show the other “offices” of the corporation are portrayed as being boring and less successful in comparison with the Scranton branch (the story’s main setting) — a story arc involved this analysis wherein the company’s executive (named David Wallace) asks the boss of the Scranton branch what he’s doing at his branch that makes it more success than the others. The punch-line is that the boss doesn’t know what he’s being asked, as his own silliness seems normal to him — it doesn’t occur that he is part of the element that breaks the Tradition of Boredom, and we, the audience find this hilarious and the show seems endlessly successful as a result.
This analysis thus leads me to think that The Office fulfills part of what Wallace wanted to do with his third novel: analyze how boredom breaks down within an IRS-like context.