“I don’t own a television.”
It’s the mantra of many who want to signal their elevation above the unwashed masses who go bananas with excitement at the prospect of a new season of Game of Thrones or Jack Ryan. I had to Google “most popular current television shows” to come up with those two titles. Does that earn me a bit of intellectual gravitas?
The sign of an educated mind today is often marked by testimonies of reading, and reading so many books per month, quarter or year, determined by what the reader thinks is the best period to use as a gauge. Reading it is supposed, is infinitely better than watching television. Anything, it is supposed, is better than watching television. Given that this is a blog dedicated chiefly to the discussion of books, reading, and the vast amount of knowledge to be found as a result, you might assume I am of the mind that reading is ever and always better than watching television.
Disclosure: As I begin this post, America’s Test Kitchen is fading to black on PBS and I am looking forward to next program, Steven Raichlen’s Project Fire. I am a sucker for a good cooking show and PBS spares me offensive commercials. No. I have not killed my TV. It doesn’t get a whole lot of use, at least not for scripted broadcast television shows, but we do have one.
Over dinner tonight we discussed this idea that reading in itself is a higher brow leisure activity. The general consensus was that yes, it is certainly better than watching television. There was also a general agreement that a lot of people who brag about their lack of television watching spend copious amounts of time watching YouTube videos or arguing on Twitter and Facebook, which is hardly any better. What I really wanted to know however, is if there is more reading taking place, and if so, is it the kind of reading which adds to the metal acuity what television is presumed to take away from it. The answer we came away with was: It depends.
One of our daughters, a history buff if ever there was one, has been watching the documentary series World War II in color. She questioned whether reading one of the latest YA novels would be more advantageous than watching her documentary based solely on the fact that she would be turning pages whether than watching a screen. It’s on this point that I find myself parked.
There is a school of thought among people in general and even some educators that children and teens reading anything is better than if they were reading nothing at all. I am embarrassed to admit that there was a point when I harbored such foolish thoughts as well. Reading is fundamental, after all! Reading is always the best and most effective use of one’s leisure if television is the alternative. Hikes, jogs, nature exploration and the likes are even better, but suburbanites are not always in the position to exercise those options.
However, a cursory glance at the books which are most popular today leaves me with the impression that most are literature’s version of junk food. Books so devoid of depth (of characters as well as language) that many people can read two or three of them a week without missing a beat! Given the relatively common damage to the attention spans of the public at large, it doesn’t take a literature professor to figure out that 300 page books which can be zipped through in one’s spare time after just three days and over 4 hours are probably hamburger to Thackeray’s t-bone steak.
The devolution of reading, which we’ve discussed before, necessitates that certain books demand different levels of engagement than others. In other words, digesting words on a page is technically to read. However when we digest and process ideas, language, and stories that challenge us to think deeply and seek more earnestly the good, the true, and beautiful, then we know that we are really reading.
In short, not all reading is created equal.
Elaboration: Yes, in most cases, reading beats watching television. I know full well most Americans aren’t into PBS cooking shows or WWII documentaries. Including our young adult kids, who are kind of hooked on The Office.
Wait. Is Netflix TV?