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.