Good Reading : February 2005
reading rules! last word Is reading ‘better’ for us than watching television or films? In the library corner, EMILY MAGUIRE takes up the cudgels on behalf of books. 54 goodreading We readers often take the intellectual high ground when it comes to popular culture, but is reading really an inherently superior activity? I think even we diehard readers would concede that some television programs and films are as intelligent and thought-provoking as anything we can find on our bookshelves. Equally, we all know that some books are as much fairy-floss for the brain as the trashiest of soap operas. But the argument becomes murkier when we compare like with like: what of reading a newspaper compared with watching the six o’clock news, or reading Schindler’s Ark instead of watching Schindler’s List? Is there something about the act of reading in and of itself that is superior to other forms of entertainment? When we choose to read a book we are making a commitment, and every time we pick up that book we are affirming that initial commitment. We are making a conscious decision that what is between those covers is a worthwhile use of our time. Choosing to watch TV often means switching on the set and leaving it on while the mail is opened, dinner is cooked and tomor- row’s clothes are ironed. Unlike a book, a television set has an audience simply by being in the same room as a human being.The human being just absorbs all those words and images without needing to make any further decisions. Of course, this does not mean read- ing is superior, only that it requires more decision making. However, studies have shown that when watching television our brain switches from a state of alert- ness (indicated by beta wave activity) to a state of hypnosis (evident in alpha wave activity), which means our infor- mation reception and analysis abilities are impaired. In other words,TV infor- mation is more likely to be uncritically absorbed than other kinds.Which is not really a problem since TV is inherently unsuited to presenting complex ideas requiring critical analysis anyway. As the late writer and broadcaster Rod Serling put it, ‘It is difficult to produce a televi- sion documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.’ Books, thankfully, are not required to present a sponsor’s message every ten or so pages and can be whatever length the subject matter calls for. Non-fiction monographs are obviously suited to in-depth explanations, but fiction is also a valuable way of exploring complex issues.The imagined lives of people living in every time and country and under every kind of political system educate us in a way that a sound bite on the six o’clock news cannot. And great novels about human folly and courage never date. Reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American last month I was surprised at how much this 40-year-old book has to say about cur- rent world events. George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale also caused me to think differently about world events and to read the daily newspaper with a sharper eye. This act of relating fictional worlds to the real one is the key to reading’s uniqueness and importance. Reading – unlike watching a screen – is fun- damentally creative: the author gives clues about a world but it is up to the reader to make that world real. This is why movie adaptations are often disappointing: the world we each see in our imagination is so personal that the chances it will match that of any other person are minuscule. Just as a book is re-written with every reader, so too is the reader re-written with every book.The words your mind transforms into worlds become part of you, forever.This enlarged identity is the true benefit of reading and something that cannot be gained through passively accepting the images created in another person’s mind. I’m not arguing that television and films are inherently bad or unworthy of attention; in some cases, such as breaking news, television is an infinitely superior medium. But if television becomes the main channel through which we receive information, I fear we will lose our ability to think critically and understand complex ideas. If the only stories we are told are transmitted on a screen we will lose the ability to create worlds of our own and imagine alternative futures. Many readers happily discuss how enjoyable reading is, but are less likely to assert how valuable it is. Perhaps they are afraid of appearing snobbish or elitist, but acknowledging that reading is supe- rior to watching television and movies is no more snobbish than acknowledg- ing that a three-course meal is superior to a packet of chips.There simply isn’t any other form of entertainment that consistently improves the quality of life, not just of the immediate audience but of society as a whole. And so I say, with- out reservation, that reading is indeed a superior form of entertainment. Reading – unlike watching a screen – is fundamentally creative: the author gives clues about a world but it is up to the reader to make that world real.
December January 2005