Thursday, 30 October 2014

On Reading Stories and Watching Television

In an online article posted yesterday, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett observes that, generally speaking, we don’t make enough time to read books and, when we do, we’re all too eager to skip to the good bits rather than to allow the narrative to unfold on its own terms. It’s perhaps a symptom of living in the digital age, she suggests, where the desire for immediacy and instant gratification trump true immersion in another world. Cosslett has a point, though I don’t think all the blame can be assigned to modern technology changing our behaviour. After all, who hasn’t read the final chapter of a book ahead of time to see how things end? I’d say it’s human nature to crave resolution and completion, and digital technologies are merely tools to make this craving short-term and manageable.

I know that I’d have more time to read if I didn’t waste so much time doing Buzzfeed quizzes or watching television. But there’s surely a connection between this latter vice and reading books. In her article, Cosslett speculates that reading is a form of self-improvement: another’s carefully crafted written word draws me into enriching new worlds and towards fresh ideas. However, I don’t think the possibility of such amelioration belongs solely to the literary elite. There are a number of television programmes out there that invite the viewer into a story in much the same way as does a good novel. Some will scoff, I’m sure, but programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Continuum, Gotham, Neighbours, Rome, and The Walking Dead – each of these programmes, with varying degrees of quality, features a narrative as compelling as that of any classic novel, and in turn offers commentary on what it means to be human, and on where the human race might be headed. I’d say that my recent re-watching of Buffy (all seven seasons in about five months) has taught me to reflect more on the responsibilities of adulthood than anything I’ve ever read in a book or heard preached from a pulpit. And even though I don’t watch them, it’s quite possible that the reason why programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor are so popular is because they are stories of a sort, trapping people in a narrative web and drawing them towards final resolution.

If it’s difficult to find the time to read, it might be worthwhile to explore how much time is spent on other, arguably less stimulating, activities. But watching television is surely sufficient for the purpose of entering a story and following its plot to the end.

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