Television vs. the Book
Let me start out by saying I love to read. I read almost anything I can get my hands on (academic works, novels, newspapers, magazines, comic books) and I read at all hours of the day. You would be hard-pressed to find a stronger proponent of the benefits and wonders of reading than myself. However, I am also an avid TV watcher. (People sometimes ask me how I have time to do both. I have found that it helps to do both simultaneously, a wonderful skill I trained hard for during my many years of graduate school).
As a staunch defender of both enterprises, one of my pet peeves is when elitists argue that the act of reading a book is superior to the act of watching television. (Please notice my emphasis on "act." I am not talking about comparing content -- that is another discussion). The arguments are familiar and, when coming from avid readers, often hypocritical. Television viewing is contributing to the obesity problem in America, they say, because it makes people sit in sedentary fashion on their various couches. All the while, of course, readers are burning numerous calories as they sit in sedentary fashion on their various couches holding a book. If we really want to counteract the obesity problem, we have to be serious about giving up television AND reading.
Or, literary elitists suggest that watching television is an anti-social activity that cuts us off from necessary human interaction. They are able to say this because sitting alone in a chair with one's face stuck in a book is a highly social activity.
Perhaps the one that gets to me the most, though, is the claim that reading is an intellectually active exercise while watching TV is intellectually passive. "You just sit and take images in with no intellectual or emotional engagement," they say. "You are a passive receiver rather than an active participant," they helpfully add.
People who say such things are people who do not watch much TV (at least not good TV). Those who do know what an active exercise, emotionally, socially, and intellectually, it can be.
I was not a passive viewer when the 2005 NFL Playoff game between the Steelers and the Colts nearly put me into cardiac arrest (for those who do not know, I am a lifelong Steelers fan). I have friends who regularly yell, scream, and jump up and down while watching TV, sometimes even when sports events are on.
I think of the social and intellectual benefits of sitting in a dilapidated graduate dorm room in Memphis with Tony, Bruce, and George, while The Simpsons sparked communal laughter and dialogue about the truth of its satirical worldview.
I think of Dave in Atlanta, and how every Friday night we would gather to watch and discuss The X-Files and The Practice. Group television viewing has replaced the book club as the place for social and intellectual engagement. Engaging in dialogue over a book requires locating someone else who has recently read the book. If not, it requires extensive summarizing of the plot (after which the other person is still ill-informed) or waiting an extended period until they finish it. By contrast, all across the country people are gathering together for Lost parties or communal 24 viewings and discussing as they watch. Television provides an immediacy of active intellectual engagement with others that reading simply cannot possibly attain.
Television is a family activity where members do more than passively sit in a room together. They engage the show together and discuss it both during and after. Television likewise creates a kind of national community through the "watercooler" effect. A nation may be hopelessly divided over who killed Nicole Simpson, but they will band together in unity to discover who shot J.R.
On an individual level, good television stimulates thinking. Two years later I find myself continuing to revisit and think about the episode called "Silence" that concluded the first season of Joan of Arcadia. My initial viewing of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode, "Once More, With Feeling," provided one of the single most provocative TV viewing experiences I've ever had. Likewise, the Buffy silent episode "Hush" still has me dwelling on its message about nonverbal communication. The mysteries of Lost regularly present viewers with a mental puzzle for them to dwell on and discuss throughout the week.
There are benefits that come from reading that cannot be replaced by television viewing; but the reverse is also true. The problem with comparing TV viewing to reading is that they are completely different enterprises that engage us in different ways. I suggest we need to appreciate the value of both. I would write more but the latest John Sandford novel and the recent episode of 24 beckon me.