Tuesday, April 25, 2006

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.

Some Evidence:

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.

13 Comments:

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Jim MacKenzie said...

Greg, I never knew anyone else read while watching TV! I cultivated my multitasking habit while in graduate school as well. The interesting thing now is my 15 year old daughter does her homework while watching (mostly sports). It drives mom crazy and I haven't had the guts yet to step in and say I was the same way!

Great thoughts on the whole phenomenon of TV watching. I am beginning to believe my church here thinks I watch too much! But there are so many lessons out there for sermon fodder.

Continue being a TV evangelist, wait, that doesn't conjure the right image! An evangelist for TV watching! That's better!

Look forward to meeting you at the Sermon Seminar.

 
At 1:54 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Jim,
Thanks for the comments. It's good to know there are others like me out there. At least if I were a TV evangelist, I'd be making better money!
Unfortunately I'll be missing most of the seminar this year due to a family conflict, but I might be around for the tail end of it.

 
At 2:36 PM, Blogger Suzie said...

I usually like to read during the commercials.

You are so right. There is value in both and they are not mutually exclusive. When I used to teach English, I would gladly incorporate and intertwine movie versions with novels. Another point, originally the novels of Charles Dickens came out in serial form. They were in essence pre-t.v. shows. I can imagine that Victorian England waited as excitedly for the next installment of "A Tale of Two Cities" as we do for whatever show we are hooked on. Usually seeing the movie of a novel makes me want to go see the movie and vice versa. Great post!

 
At 9:25 PM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

I am envious at your ability to do both at the same time, try as I might I can never remeber what I read if the TV is on at the same time.

I am also envious because I have never experienced the communal qualities of television watching with my family. The men in my family used to get almost giddy from WWF but I could not seem to get into it.

Alas, I live in an arid place that seems almost black-and-white to your world of color. It must be this dry place however, that causes me to prefer the Wall Street Journal over USA Today.

 
At 11:26 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Sermoniac,
Yes, only a dry and arid land could provoke you to make that choice.

 
At 11:26 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Suzie,
Thanks for the information on Dickens. I was not aware of that.

 
At 10:12 AM, Blogger Random Rich said...

Well said, sir. And don't forget about folks like me that learn by seeing much easier than by reading.

Case in point: When I was in college (hint - our school mascot was a T-Rex ... just kidding!), I majored in Radio & TV Broadcasting. Most of my courses were hands on, as in running a camera or a switcher board or standing in front of the camera acting. I aced all the production courses, however, in the "Intro to Broadcasting" course, which was a straight lecture and reading the textbook course, I received a "D" in and had to retake to graduate.

I have always learned and retained things much better by watching images on a screen or in real life than through reading, although I would never diss reading just because my retention is poor.

Good entry.

 
At 3:52 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Rich,
That is certainly the challenge that teachers like myself face who have to figure out how best to communicate to people who learn visually. I think there needs to be a balance maintained between the two. Part of the challenge I face with students who learn visually is encouraging them to read more.

 
At 9:32 PM, Blogger Nellie said...

I love to read and watch TV at the same time. The only problem this has created are those times when my husband comes into the room and feels free to change the TV channel because, as he tells me, "You're not watching TV, you are are reading that book." Can't seem to get him to understand that I can do both at the same time! (And we've been married for 33 years.)

I enjoy your posts!

 
At 1:49 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Nellie,
I understand. My wife does the same thing.

 
At 2:33 AM, Blogger KMiV said...

Amen Greg!
I hope they have TV in heaven. And cheeseburgers. Oh yeah, and pizza.

Ron

 
At 11:46 PM, Blogger . . . said...

This is a great argument. Very, very good points. Not only that, it makes me feel better about my never-ending television-watching!

 
At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Jayson said...

I totally agree with you and have a few things to add. First, the only major difference between TV and books is that books require more effort and TV a little less since the content is provided for you. With books you have to create all the images and sounds that accompany a story and that does take some effort.

Secondly, far as content is concerned, both have their high and low-points. I'm fairly certain there are just as many bad books as there are Television shows or visa versa.

Just because it's a "book" doesn't automatically make it better than any TV show. So likewise I've seen a lot of TV shows (some highly praised) that suck and some that are really good.

What the two mediums have in common is that they are trying to convey a story. One does it will illustrations and the other with plain text. Neither are wrong or right, just different.

Btw, I'm not a stereotypical couch potato mainly because I'm usually at my desk instead of a couch, lol. Anyway, I usually watch TV while on my computer. When I sit down to read a book it has to be quiet, easily distracted I am.

 

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