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Reflecting on Reading vs. Watching

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The Writers’ Trust of Canada announced four awards on Wednesday, including one for Rohinton Mistry – the Timothy Findley Award for a male writer in mid-career. His A Fine Balance is one of my favourites books, one that envelops me in its world for the days I spent reading it, only to release me into the mundane world with a sigh. It’s overpoweringly, unapologetically depressing in parts, but always entertaining and enlightening.

Book awards are not exactly rare, but the ones announced today are a little different from most in that they reward authors for their careers, not single works. Unlike the Oscars or Emmys, many book awards not only bring attention to quality work, they bring money to the award recipient. And just as the Oscars tend to boost a film’s box office, and the Emmys … do nothing much, if you take Arrested Development as a lesson … book awards tend to boost readership, which is why I even care that the Writers’ Trust bestowed an award on a favourite of mine.

Much as I love movies and television, it makes me sad to think that the average bestselling book is read by a tiny fraction of the number of people who see a generic Hollywood blockbuster. I won’t whine about the increasing illiteracy of our society, though. It’s partly math. A movie lasts a couple of hours – more if Peter Jackson’s name is on it. Depending on the book, it can take days or weeks to finish. It’s hard to measure precisely how long, since most of us read in bits and pieces without a stopwatch, but The Time Traveler’s Wife audiobook, for example, clocked in at almost 18 hours.

Plus, going to a movie or watching TV can be a social occasion. I might be a nerd, but even I don’t get together with my friends to read, and I might protest if a guy proposed a reading date.

Still, it’s partly that we want to read less than we used to, because there are so many other things competing for our leisure time attention. At home, we have TV, DVDs, the Internet. Where we might have brought a book with us, now we have the option of portable DVD players or iPods.

I can’t point any fingers. I hit my reading peak in university more than 10 years ago, when I slyly majored in my hobby and chose English courses based on the reading lists rather than any academic ambition. I’d say I’m at my reading nadir now, with other activities (damn you, Blogcritics) taking up space where I might otherwise have picked up a book.

I have no value judgement to make. It’s sad that we don’t read as much as we used to. It’s sad that some of the finest writers struggle for recognition. But that’s true whether they write books, television, or movies.

Is reading intrinsically more valuable than watching TV or a movie? The English lit major in me should say yes, I suppose, but the rest of me can’t. You can’t compare the quality of A Fine Balance to Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, perhaps, but maybe you can compare it to Brokeback Mountain or Crash or Good Night, and Good Luck. I spend my Tuesday nights analysing a TV show into the ground, so who am I to say that watching television can’t be as thought-provoking as reading?

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About Diane Kristine Wild

Diane travels. She doesn't tan.
  • Interesting post Diane. I’d say reading is better than watching TV or movies, because you are actively involved; you have to use your imagination – you are creating pictures in your mind from words (and incidentally in a good book learning new ways to express yourself and new ideas). Watching a screen is by contrast inherently passive. (As some brain scan studies have shown.)

  • Diane, I am on the side of books, even though TV shows and movies need writers for scripts. I don’t even know if it’s the quality of writing, but it’s more the experience of the book.

    When I read to my four year old daughter, there is an amazing feeling of connection. I just don’t get that when I watch TV with her. She is looking at the book as I read the words; I am watching her reaction to the pictures she is processing along with the words; we are connecting and enjoying something that is a sacred moment.

    Even when I read on my own (and my list of want to read-don’t have the time continues to grow), I still enjoy the book more than anything. I don’t like reading off a computer screen. The book is the thing in which to capture the conscience of not just the king, but of us all.

  • books all the way for me.

    things like movies and tv (to a lesser extent) can be somewhat enriching, but a steady diet of video-only entertainment (including games, how could i forget?!) is shrinking our collective brains and attention spans.

  • Reading is more active than watching. It gives the brain more mental exercise. Writing is a better, more practical way to communicate ideas than film (Tom Paine didn’t put out videos of “Common Sense,” just for one example).

    The entertaining and social of electronic media are fine and there’s a place for them, but there’s also a place for the solitary pursuit of ideas that comes from the printed word. Reading can be a social experience also, with book clubs. I love discussing a book with others.

  • I meant to say “the entertaining and social aspects…” in my previous post. Didn’t read well enough :->

    Victor, I’ve noticed that some children are interested in books even though they can’t read yet. Some preschool-age children from next door came over to my place last night, and they initiated picking up some books and flipping through as if they were reading. I think it makes them feel grown-up.

  • I obviously value reading, too, but it’s the “intrinsically more valuable” part that I can’t bring myself to agree with. A steady diet of pulp fiction, no matter how much it engages your brain waves, is not more valuable than watching a film like Pulp Fiction, that dares you to unravel its timeline and brings forward ideas to chew on. There are some things movies and TV do better than reading, the main one being reach. The movies I mentioned were seen by millions of people and the issues they raised – homophobia, racism, abuse of power by government and media, etc. – were discussed in depth in the mainstream media and the blogosphere. The most powerful book on the subject will barely make an impact in popular culture unless Oprah gets her hands on it, and even then, unless the author lies to her, the book’s reach doesn’t equal a movie’s. Even with the Harry Potter phenomenon, more people will see the movies than read the books.

    I’m not trying to devalue reading at all. But with the quality of many TV shows and movies out there today, I don’t think we need to devalue them and discount their impact on our society in order to elevate books, which of course do many, many things better than the visual media.

  • Rodney Welch

    I think it can be said of both books and movies that there are instances in which each — as artistic forms — beats the other cold. Yes it’s a cliche, but pictures very, very often are worth a thousand words.

    Film can show real life, as in a documentary, and it can show how things work.

    Best example I know: the film House of Games, which in one particular sequence shows an extended con scheme. I thought while watching it that the finest wordsmith might render the scene more poetically, but he couldn’t possibly render it with more clarity.

    I think for the same reason that videos on how to build something may well be more effective and useful than a book on the same, although I’m sure both have their value.

    Movies can and often do affect people with great emotional immediacy in ways that books either can’t or usually don’t. Images by their nature I think make people react in a way words do not.

    What books can do that movies (generally) cannot: render psychological depth and complexity. Has anyone ever convincingly been described as the “Henry James of film” or the “James Joyce of film”? You can show behavior, but there are limits to the degree to which you can show the reasons behind it.

  • Randy Hammer

    I would have to say books are better than watching TV.. It gives you more imagination to create mental pictures in your head, and you have the freedom to control the movements when you visualize the characters in the book, where in TV it’s more passive.

    I enjoy TV also, some shows and movies educate the mind sort of similar to what books do, and the same with video games when you think about it because of story plots but in a more interactive way.

    Right now I’m currently reading 3 Halo books, and Doom 3 doom books.. Knee Deep in the Dead, Hell on Earth, and Infernal Sky (Inferno in the video game) When I finished reading them, I understood more of what Doom and Halo was about.

    playing Doom on Nightmare skill level is pretty hard, and If I can’t master that, well I mastered the book. 🙂

    I see a lot of books based of movies, like The Bourne Supremacy, IT, Star Wars etc, but I hope to see in the future that Authors can make more video game novels So that people that aren’t really good at gaming at all, can appreciate the books and realize the video game industry as an Artform Just like films and books.

  • Steve

    Just thinking about books vs movies with reference to Harry Potter.

    I have had negative experiences in the past of reading a book, getting a mental picture of the characters etc. and then been disappointed by the movie.

    So I went to see the first Harry Potter BEFORE reading the books. I’m glad I did, because now, years later, the latest movie had a character that I had read in book form first, and there were things about the character that were not quite what I had envisioned at all, and was therefore disappointed.

    In summary, movies can help greatly with a story’s visuals, but only if the film makers follow the book’s details closely.

    Of course, books have so much more plot detail than a movie can ever have, so the more interesting the characters, the more a book would appeal than a movie, though personally I like both.

  • Tommy

    Well,there’s nth good or bad,but thinking makes so.Think about,reading a book gives us more indeph information that the TV cant give us.Why?simply because the nature of the tv that don’t allow of such a indeph information encoding.But for book,it can provide a very detail information that a readers needs to read.However,watching tv can give the viewers more of the visual stimulationa and hence remembers vivdly what they have learned.but,they can never learn from the information in detail because it can’t broadcast from the very beginning to the end about this particular topic.i dun agree with the watching tv encoureages mental passivity.it all depends on the individual ‘how’ he watches tv.he can be watching the tv program with questioning curiosity in his head or he can be mindlessly watching it and let the visual content pass by his optical sensory data input.Same applies to reading as well.a reader can simply read with full comphrension by constantly asking questions,paying full attention and relating the sotry to real life;Or he can be reading with the dreamland he had been yesterday and simply absorbing the words and none of the comphrehension been taken.

  • Well i just have to say that books are by far better than TV and Movies. You just cant beat sitting down and reading a book. You make the images in your head and it seems so much more real than in movies. You can read a book at home, you can read in the car, you can read where ever you want, but with a movie you CAN watch it where ever you want but its far more expensive.

    And with movies, they don’t offer near the amount of detail as books. Movies just disappoint me after reading the books. The whole Harry Potter series, they just jumped from one major plot scene to the next with nothing in between and they changed most of it. What you were left with was not the book. It was the short and lazy version of the book.

  • Reading is good if you want to remember the subject. But movies after the book is the way to go. you can see that your imangantion could be wrong or right. peace

  • No I think that u r all wrong and that watching movies for a school project is better because it takes less time and less thought process. But reading can be fun.

  • Pat Haley

    No No NO reading is bad. reading is awaste of time and should not be mandatory in school. But I like to watch T.V.

  • ZK

    Pat haley…
    thank you!

  • readıng is better

  • Kitty Whiskers

    Is there a statistic on the number of people, percentage wise, who prefer watching movies compared to reading books?
    Just curious.

  • sumwun

    tv is shoo much better

  • bhavishna rao

    reading is fun and is really interesting.



  • shaiza

    reading is much much much much much better than watcing television

  • Andrian Harsono

    I enjoy doing both reading and watching movies/TV. There are distinct advantages in both activities. If I’m feeling lazy and want to just be passive and entertained, then I will watch a movie. But more often than not, books offer more detail which movies won’t really show. For example, a book can easily talk about what the character is thinking at that moment, but for the purposes of entertainment, the movie on the same story can’t afford to do that.

    Reading has also helped me exercise my sense of imagination and also aids in my escapism 🙂 Finally, reading helps your linguistic skills and therefore helps you express yourself better in real life!

  • BookLuvr

    Everyone who says that TV is better are fatties who sit and watch TV all day!You should read and expand you minds not sit on the couch and stare at a moving screen. You just set you up for disaster and failure in the future. If you read when you’re young you will be smarter. There is so much crap in this world right now and most of it is shown in the TV shows we watch. I say the people who watch the most TV are going to be more insecure and will be more likely to be lazyyy. NO OFFENSE!

  • iloveasians123

    I think that it is completely fine to watch TV, but just don’t put it as something that you MUST do.
    When you watch TV, it also affects your heath. Recently, scientists have discovered that cellphone waves can cause cancerous brain tumours. How would you like it if every time one of your relatives, friends, or family, sat down to watch a TV show, they are reducing their life’s limit.
    Reading, on the other hand, makes your brain think, reflect, and have a chance to be creative.
    In conclusion, I think that yes, TV is entertaining, and it is OK to watch, but don’t make it your life, create your future, don’t watch it in a fantasy show…

  • Maria and Vlada

    If you want to be sure that books are better than films, just watch the film- ‘Idiocracy’! Regardless of the suggestive title, it speaks about the effect of the modern lyfestyle which praises entertainment and avoids thinking or even a little mental effort (which reading also requires). The film is set in the future, and you can see what will happen to our civilisation, if we are just passive consumers.
    We think the idea of the film is great.
    ps.Books make you think, and help you find out more about the world and yourself!

  • rahul bhatt

    watching tv is better

  • shalu 1972

    i agree that reading books are better than watching t.v as it open your mind give you wide ideas to visualise things in better way its a good mental exercise.reading books means you are brushing your mind with new ideas,concept and skills which we can’t get from t.v.

  • theman

    I love both TV and Books. but i say, in todays world, watching ia more usefull than reading. Because, in olden days the only way to collect knowledge is through reading books. But today, as science developed, we have visual implementations of everything .
    lets consider an example, a student is taught the mechanism of an engine through plain notes and a simple animation of engine working. in which case, the student easily understand it ? ofcourse through that animation.
    We can get more idea through watching than through reading. Thats why todays educational methods are changing. So, how can we say reading is better? While seeing something, brain gets intrested to it more than that of reading….

    anyway, we should read something daily to not forget our language…

  • manoj

    raeading books is alwats best than watching tv in the world