Why Is Reading a Virtue But Watching TV Shows is “Lazy?”


I grew up in a fairly non-traditional family when it comes to media consumption. For example, my parents did not go to great lengths to censor what I read or watched. I have memories of my mom explaining what LSD was to me when we watched Hair and answering “Mom, what does ‘horny’ mean?” after I had watched Austin Powers. “It means you feel like having sex,” she said. To her, books and movies were important stories that, if I can speculate, helped her explain the world to me. And she knew the world was both weird and inevitable and that stories help you understand the weird stuff sooner, rather than later.

We loved reading, as a family. For example, if I go to the Barnes and Noble in Roseville, Minnesota, there is a significant likelihood that I will run into one of my family members. That was where we hung out. We just liked to be surrounded by books. Books were stacked everywhere in our house. I learned a lot just picking up random things my dad left next to his chair, like GQ magazine. I read a whole bunch of my mom’s romance novels just cuz they were on the couch all the time. We didn’t differentiate too much between types of books. My mom likes romance novels but she also reads Kafka.

And TV. It was our glue. We used to all sit on the couch together and giggle that we were just like the Bundys. In 3rd grade I had to write about a family tradition and I wrote about how my family all sat down to watch Xena every Sunday. As a family, we had “shows.” Ally McBeal. American Idol. We loved our shows.

I grew up in a bubble where high culture and low culture were on the same pedestal, where Kelly Ripa and the chemical theory of mind were equally important topics of dinner conversation. Because of this, I sometimes have to backtrack to understand regimented views on media that seem to exist in the world. Namely, that watching TV is somehow a bad thing.

To me, TV shows and books have always seemed basically the same. They’re both about characters. They both have narrative arcs. They both have a plot, have suspense, they both foreshadow. They both require a lot of artistry. TV actually seems to require more artistry to me, because to make a show you need a lot of talented people to do all kinds of things, like write the script, direct the scenes, act them out, edit them, etc. TV seems to take a lot of time and money. A book I could sit and write by myself over the course of a month.

TV and movies have probably influenced my writing career just as much as books have. Freaks and Geeks and Friday Night Lights helped me realize how great character redemption stories are. Seinfeld taught me about writing about simple, annoying character flaws. Judd Apatow movies helped me realize you can just write about being a silly, non-serious person addicted to pop culture, as have the books of (and movies inspired by) Nick Hornby.

Maybe reading is less passive than watching TV because it forces you to imagine things in your mind rather than acting them out for you, and somehow that is good for you. Maybe it is good for you because you use both hands to hold a book instead of using them to eat chips. I don’t know.

What I do know is that there’s a bias toward liking old things more than new ones. For example, forks were initially considered suspect because they insulted “God’s forks,” AKA fingers. We as a society still consider liking Beethoven high class but liking gangster rap low class, even though both are equally interesting types of music (I would argue the latter is a lot more interesting). TV is still new-ish and therefore held in much lower regard than its predecessor, the book.

Next time you apologize for downing a marathon on Netflix, just think, do I want to apologize for watching this and be like those people who used to think forks were evil? No. TV, movies and books all serve a perfectly legitimate function, which is telling stories. And stories are one of the most undervalued and most important things in the world.

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image –jenny downing

This post originally appeared on The Tangential.