Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Concept: Television vs. Books.



It is popular among educated and upper middle-class people to inveigh against television. The same people who boast about the quality and quantity of books they own are also proud that they don't have a TV set. "Watching television," they say, "that's so passive." I don't buy it.

First, reading a book is a necessarily sedentary activity. I know; sometimes I have read while walking and it's difficult. The amount of concentration it takes to process what is put on a page is equivalent to what it takes to process on a screen. Which isn't to say that reading is more physically passive than watching TV. They're both fundamentally passive activities.

Second, the whole attention-span argument. I don't think that this is true for television and it's certainly not true for culture in general. We are often exposed to the sound-bite MTV argument that modern audiences have no patience for extended concentration. Why then aren't we offended by haikus? Why don't we accuse Shakespeare of being a commercialist when his sonnets are like tiny specks compared to manifestoes like Howl or Prufrock? Or, on the other side of the argument, how do we explain increased markets for extended works in all media. How many people romped through 3,000 pages of Harry Potter, ten hours of the Lord of the Rings films, or going-on five seasons of Lost?

Third, isn't it a convenient coincidence that the book, the medium with the presige of a heritage, and one which readers can collect as a tesimony to their taste is concidered the reciptacle of worthwhile thought? Meanwhile, television, a public medium accessed by billions that has been around for less than a century, is described as an agent of passivity.

Books make an ongoing contribution to society; in some form or another, we will always be reading. But the elevation of books at the expense of television is just one more permutation of the "high art" vs. "low art" debate, in which the vocabulary changes but never the premise. We are living, in fact, through a golden age of television today. Perennial dramas such as Deadwood and Lost are challenging viewers with complex characters, storylines, and visual language, while American Idol today fills the shoes that The Ed Sullivan Show filled in the early sixties. Online outlets such as hulu and YouTube are making television more accessible and versatile, while DVDs as a mode of storage make television more collectible, and can, in fact, be works of art in their own right.

If you claim to be open minded and a populist, it is a very, very bad time to deplore television as a medium.

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