Reading Versus Television: Which Is Better?
Which is better – to read a book or watch a television program? I’m a literature professor, a writer, and an avid reader. I bet you know what my answer will be. Don’t be so sure.
What seems like a straightforward comparison – books versus TV, culture versus the boob tube – is more complex than it seems at first, because we have to ask questions – not just about what we are reading or watching, but how we are doing it.
The Activity Factor
Both reading and watching television are sedentary occupations. However, the level of mental activity is considerably different. All else being equal, reading is considerably more active than watching television, because reading is a cognitively active task. When you are watching TV, you are passively receiving images, in an order controlled by another person. What you see is what you get. In contrast, reading requires you to imaginatively bring to life what you are reading. Even the most basic, undemanding form of reading requires decoding, the transformation of printed letters into meaningful words, and as such is more active than viewing a TV program. Furthermore, readers are in more control of their activity, able to slow down, speed up, skip, and re-read as desired, something that they are unlikely to do while watching TV.
So: all else being equal, reading is better for you than watching TV.
But there’s a social variable that makes a difference.
The Social Factor
Reading seems like an essentially solitary endeavor: just you and the book. However, it’s not as simple as that. First of all, reading doesn’t have to be solitary and silent. Through most of history, written texts have been primarily used to read aloud to a listening audience, an activity that is preserved today mainly in parents reading to children, and people listening to audio books. The experience of written text heard aloud is enduringly popular, and not just as a second-rate substitute when one is driving or can’t see, and it can be social.
Even if we take reading as silent and individual, it does not have to be solitary. Consider two bibliophiles sitting in a room together, each reading his or her own book. To a non-reader it might look very unfriendly, but book lovers know the companionable feeling of reading in the presence of another reader. There’s a sympathetic vibe, a sense of shared enjoyment underlying the apparent individuality of the reading experience. Reading in this context is a kind of interaction in parallel – experiences that remain separate, but within touching distance, and therefore still social.
What’s more, even solitary silent reading can be social in a different way. One of the greatest pleasures for a true reader is to share a book with a friend. “What did you think of it?” I have taken great pleasure in reading a book along with a friend, both of us with our own copies read in different times and places, but coming together for discussion that enriches the experience far beyond that of solitary reading. Similarly, I have benefited greatly from both borrowing and lending books from friends and mentors. Call it being sequentially social: the book is read in independent solitude, but the experience becomes relational.
The last kind of reading that is the most frustrating is silent, independent reading with no outlet for communication or discussion with another person. Sometimes this is a frustrating experience: the book might be an escape, but it is a dead-end escape, an escape to an emotional desert island with no one else around. The value of a book in these circumstances is to be a window to a different place, showing the isolated reader something beyond the here and now. Especially when the here and now is oppressive or discouraging, the value of such a window is incalculable.
However, not all silent, unshared reading is reading-to-escape. Quite on the contrary. Reading can be the start of an internal dialogue; the silence and solitude of the reading experience can be conducive to intense reflection and growth. To be able to share such an experience is wonderful but not necessary for the experience itself to be enriching.
Now consider television. The best way to watch television or film is with family and friends present. It becomes an interactive experience: discussing what is happening, what you want to happen, explaining or discussing bits of it as you go along. Isn’t that the fun of watching a horror movie with friends? You exclaim, “Look out! The monster is lurking in the shadows!” and even though the characters on-screen can’t hear you, your friends do. It is almost participatory.
The next best way for television to be social is for it to be parallel. You might watch an episode of your favorite show alone, but the next day you’ll discuss it with your co-workers, classmates, family, and friends. Even a trivial show can become a kind of social glue, giving people something shared even when they differ in other interests.
The worst kind of watching television is the show that is watched alone and never discussed with anyone. It is often, quite simply, “watching TV” in general – whatever’s on – rather than watching a particular show because it interests you in some way.
What does that mean for reading compared to television?
The Content Factor
We’ve left out one major factor, which is content. That there are bad television shows few people will deny (though they often watch them anyway); that there are bad books that you shouldn’t read is a harder sell, because our culture rather curiously idolizes books while simultaneously denying that a book can have a bad, as well as a good, influence on the reader. We won’t go into that at length, but we’ll take it as a factor.
If your choice is between reading something morally bad for you, and either discussing it or not, or watching something insipid by yourself – watching television is better.
If you are by yourself, and have the choice of either reading or watching something insipid (or better), and will have no one with whom to discuss what you watch or read – reading is better.
If your choice lies between reading something insipid and never discussing it, or watching something insipid and discussing it with friends – watching television is better. It is more incarnational; it draws you into a shared experience.
If you have the choice between reading something truly good by yourself or watching something decent with your family and friends, that’s a tough call, and it should probably go different ways at different times. Perhaps you can suggest something better to watch… or suggest that you all play a game together instead of watching TV… but sometimes it’s just the right thing to do, to watch something fun with your friends.
I’d add, though, that it’s far too easy to use “the value of spending time with friends” as an excuse for why you never read the books – or Book – that in your heart of hearts you know you ought to, and want to, read. If you never choose to read by yourself, and you always choose to hang out and be social, you need to start choosing to read.
If you have family and friends to interact with, and they like to read as well, and you have your choice of whether to share an experience of reading together, or an experience of watching television together – as a general rule, reading is better.
What do I do?
I don’t have a television in my house. That’s because I like watching TV, and if I have a TV, I’ll default to watching it when my real, willed preference is to read more. I’m happier without the television – and I still watch things on my computer now and then. One important factor here is that I live by myself, so for me the social component of television is reduced.
I read a lot – and I talk to my friends about what I read. When a friend recommends a book to me, I get it and read it, and talk about it. Sometimes I read books in parallel with a friend. I lend my books to others; I borrow their books.
I make a point of reading books that are good – that is, I don’t read junk. A lot of what I read is challenging and demanding material; I read a lot of the classics – which, by the way, become much more interesting and much easier to read when one is used to a richer, literary style. But I also always have a “light” book going – something to read when I am tired, or I need cheering up. I like mystery stories, and re-reading Harry Potter. I read a lot, and I talk about books with my friends, and my life is immeasurably the richer for it.
Sometimes I miss watching television and movies, at least in the abstract. But when it comes down to it, I only have a limited number of hours in the day, and I have to make choices about how I use those hours. Once I got rid of the television, so that it was just slightly more difficult to watch a TV program than it used to be, I found that I very rarely actually did watch anything on my computer. When I made more mindful choices, rather than defaulting to the easiest option, I never ended up actually choosing TV.
Instead, I read a lot of books. And wrote one.
…but I still think Seinfeld is a work of genius.