To Watch or Not To Watch: A Reader’s Dilemma

In his 1995 essay entitled The Reader in Exile, Jonathan Franzen begins by recounting his decision to give away his television set.

A few months ago, I gave away my television set.  It was a massive old Sony Triniton, the gift of a friend whose girlfriend couldn’t stand the penetrating whistle the picture tube emitted….I kept it in inaccessible places, like the floor of a closet, and I could get a good picture only by sitting crosslegged directly in front of it and touching the antenna. It’s hard to make TV viewing more unpleasant than I did. Still, I felt the Triniton had to go, because as long as it was in the house, reachable by some combination of extension cords, I wasn’t reading books.

The rest of the essay (found in his fantastic collection How to Be Alone) goes on to outline varying perspectives on the fate of literature in the digital age.  It’s a good essay, one I recommend to any reader.  Written before the true internet explosion of the late 90’s and early 00’s, it is remarkably prescient.  Still, while the societal implications of television versus reading are certainly fascinating, it’s the personal effects of television on the reader which interest me.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a television junkie.  I watch a dozen or so shows religiously every week and I’m constantly looking for new programming.  Sitcom, drama, documentary, whatever (although I do draw the line at reality TV – I have some standards!).  Unlike Franzen, I don’t even make an effort to curb my viewing.  Through the internet, the entire catalog of television programming, past and present, is available for my perusal and I take full advantage of it.

Like Franzen, however, I also know that it’s because of TV that I don’t read as much as I could.

Naturally, as a reader, I feel guilty about watching so much television.  But I sometimes wonder about these feeling of guilt.  Do I feel guilty because I genuinely want to spend more time reading?  Do I feel guilty because, as an educated adult, I’m ‘supposed’ to?  I certainly do wish I read more.  My TBR list is a mile long and grows faster than I keep up.  There are thousands upon thousands of masterpieces which, in the most voracious readers lifetime, will go unread.

At the same time, there is a cornucopia of crap inundating the television airwaves (or, more appropriately for our times, the television bandwidth?);  mindless programming which plays to society’s lowest common denominator and serves no redeeming intellectual or social function.  Studies show that children raised watching too much television have a harder time learning to read and write.  The obesity epidemic, especially in the United States, has undoubtedly been fueled by the inactive lifestyle that television fosters.

Yet, despite all this, I’d like to mount a defense of TV from a reader’s perspective.

There are many reasons why I read.  I read to meet new and interesting people; to travel to places I’ve never been; to place myself into situations where I would otherwise never, ever find myself.  These are the joys of reading.  They’re also the joys of watching a well-made television program.  Far from being passive entertainment for mindless slugs, well made TV can engage the viewer in the same way books engage their readers.

I won’t suggest that television (or movies, or internet shorts, or any other form of visual entertainment) could ever provide the same experience as reading a good book.  The visual medium inherently limits imaginative possibilities and this is a disadvantage that television can never overcome.  Yet, in their most basic forms, television and literature are simply two different ways of doing the same thing: telling a story.  When done well, either can help fulfill the primary function of storytelling which is to attempt to make sense of and appreciate the world we live in.

There’s nothing comparable to the intellectual stimulation and emotional satisfaction of reading a wonderful book.  If I was forced to make an absolute choice between television and reading, there’s no question which one I’d give up.  Luckily, there’s no reason to make such a choice.  For all of the television maligners, here’s a suggestion that borders on the heretical:

Close that book for a while and pick up the remote.  You might be surprised.

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18 comments

  1. Pete, you’re absolutely right. When you’re able to weave your way through all the crap on the airwaves these days, there are some pretty decent shows out there. You just have to find them. And with TiVo, I can choose when I want to watch them so I’m not locked to my television at a given time.

    I give you PBS (Masterpiece Theater, Mystery, etc) — it’s a wonderful way to make novels you have or haven’t yet read come alive. There’s also the Discovery channel or National Geographic or even the Independent Film Channel, where you can sit for a couple of hours and be entertained by storytellers all over the world. As far as my tbr pile, I’ve already figured out that it will be there long after I’m gone, so I just do my best in the here and now and try not to feel guilty about my TV-watching habits.

    of course, I do feel guilty about time spent on the wii….

  2. Good post, I am a former TV junkie I used to watch everything. I used to watch 5 different soaps alone and stay up till the early hours watching werid art films. I still love TV but I’m alot more selective with what I watch so now I normally watch about an hour in the evening (unless its a film)

    When I first moved house I had to go without TV for 3 months and even though I dont watch much anymore, I still missed it. I watched stuff online to feed my habit.

  3. Quote by Groucho Marx ” I find television very educational, every time somebody turns on a set, I go into the other room & read a book”. Wish it were true all the time as the list is long & they keep writing new books, but for the majority of the time books trump the tv with out question.

  4. @Nancy: Thanks for agreeing – I was a little worried I’d be excoriated for admitting such a philistine opinion! With so many options today, there is a lot more junk on the air, but also a lot more quality programming. I have watched some of the PBS stuff, but not regularly. I generally tune to the pay-channel shows – HBO’s drama’s and Showtime’s comedies. Also a few shows on AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) are just wonderful.
    @Jessica: When I first moved to China, I didn’t have television or an internet connection in my apartment. I went for almost a year without being connected in my home. Strangely, I find that I read less then than I do now.
    @Parrish: Nice quote. I think that the experience is certainly different for books and television. Still, when I become vested in a story or character, I am fascinated as to what is going to happen next. This is true for books and television alike. In an either/or situation, I’d agree with you about books trumping television. With both available it’s a question of time management and prioritization.

  5. This was a good post, Pete. I lived without television for a year or so when I was in grad school, then a few years ago I gave up cable (and thus tv) to save money. Now I spend far too much money on tv, but I want to be able to watch basketball, boxing, and the couple of really good shows I love, like MadMed. I’ve started watching Treme, which I love. I watch tv (even boxing) for story. I still like reading better, and I love a really quiet house, so when no one else is home I turn off tv. I plan to read the Franzen essay collection, which I’ve been tempted to buy many times. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Hi Lisa, I haven’t watched Treme, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. Certainly get a copy of How to Be Alone. It’s a book I keep around to read when I need a break from other books. It’s a great collection!

  7. Since 1995, there has been a big upswing in TV offerings with the creation of things like the History Network, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, PBS etc-also Rome was awesome-real art-TV is what you make of it-a mindless companion at times and at times part of one’s hopefully life time of continuing education-thank you for your thoughtful post on this topic-

    1. Thanks for the comment Mel. You’re absolutely right about the total amount of programming being so great that the amount of quality shows, while still comparatively low, has also risen. To be honest, documentaries like you’d find on THC, Nat Geo, Discovery, etc make up a small portion of my television viewing. But, there’s no denying that there are great shows out there, fiction or non (if those labels can apply to television) which are definitely worth watching.

  8. The thought that TV is “worse” for you than reading implies that you reading something of value. You still have to avoid crap at the bookstore too, no?

    Seems like the lesson is pay attention to what you are consuming, regardless of the medium.

    1. There is a whole lot of crap in the bookstores. You’ve raised an interesting question that’s nagged my mind for a while. As a child, my mother was meticulous in monitoring what I watched on television so that I wouldn’t be exposed to material she considered objectionable. Yet, she was remarkably nonchalant when it came to my reading habits. I remember getting in trouble once for sneaking a nice hefty Stephen King novel into my Catholic middle school and my mother’s reaction wasn’t to check what I was reading, just to tell me to be more careful. I’m fairly certain she knew of the adult nature of my reading material, yet she had few objections to the fact that I was reading it. It’s an appropriate anecdote for this topic because I think many people carry this bias around that reading = good, television = bad. It’s just not that cut and dry. Thanks for the comment.

  9. I stumbled onto your blog from the “Gender Gap in Book Blogging” thread and just wanted to say excellent post! I also know I read less because of the TV and I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t really feel that guilty about watching TV over reading. I love reading and I’ve found that while most of the novels I read happen when I’m not near a TV, such as during my daily commute, I never actually sit down and pay full attention to whatever is on the TV. It is usually background while I’m doing something else, like flipping through a magazine or newspaper or reading something online. Each medium serves its own purpose and, as you say, there luckily isn’t a reason to have to make a choice between the two.

    1. Hi Alley, thanks for stopping by. It’s a constant battle for me. I rarely have the TV on in the background – I don’t actually own a connected television and watch everything through the internet. So, if I download something, I’m sure to watch it. I suppose the most important thing to do is just to find a good balance.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Monica. Definitely get a copy of How to Be Alone. The essays about reading make the entire book a worthwhile purchase (and the others are fantastic as well).

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