I know people who say they don’t watch television, and I always nod and agree. Reading is an intellectual endeavor, even if it’s a comic book, and television is lowbrow entertainment geared toward the lowest common denominator, right? Only idiots enjoy the idiot box, right?
Idiots like me. I’m going to Scotland in 2019 and three different people told me I must watch “Outlander” before I go. I don’t have STARZ, so I ordered old-fashioned DVDs from Netflix. “Outlander” is like “Game of Thrones” for fans of romance novels: a little magick (with a “k”), a lot of sex, some tasteful 18th century violence and handsome men in kilts. I watched the first four hourlong episodes back to back.
When I stood up from the couch I felt sick, and it wasn’t just the cookies, popcorn and peanut butter crackers I’d scarfed down without noticing. My brain was fuzzy, but worse, I felt furtive and ashamed. I looked outside surprised to see the sun had set. My house was dark around me except for the blue glow of the TV screen. I had spent half a day on the couch. Research for Scotland? Not exactly.
A few days later I had a library book due: The National Book Award winner “The Friend,” by Sigrid Nunez, about a woman mourning the death of her best friend who then inherits his enormous Great Dane. It was wonderful and I loved it, but I needed to finish it, so I read the last half straight through. I was immersed in Nunez’s New York City, worrying about the grieving dog and the narrator’s pending eviction because of it, as well as her career and her future. I finished the book with tears in my eyes and stood up feeling … well … great.
I had wasted another four hours on my couch. I hadn’t eaten as much junk food because I needed my hands free — and not sticky — so I could turn pages and return the book to the library relatively clean, but I hadn’t moved and once again it was dark outside.
Why did I feel so much better and guilt-free? I would have proudly told someone I spent the entire day reading, but when my sister called and asked if I’d watched “Outlander” yet, I hedged, too embarrassed to admit I was sucked into the vortex of the MacKenzie/Fraser clans.
Full disclosure: My husband produces television shows, but I think of myself as a TV snob. We don’t have one in the bedroom. My children never had their own TVs. I limited their viewing to “good” shows. I worried my son would think he could punch people without consequence and my daughter would equate her appearance with success unless I monitored their every watching moment.
I told my kids TV would rot their brains, and there are plenty of studies to back that up. In 2013, Hiraku Takeuchi, at Tohoku University in Japan, found that the more TV a child watched, the lower her verbal reasoning and the higher her levels of arousal and aggression. The child’s frontal lobe actually thickened.
But recently another investigation by criminologists Joseph Schwartz, of the University of Nebraska Omaha, and Kevin Beaver, of Florida State University, concluded that genetics has the greatest effect on how children react to TV. A kid with aggressive tendencies might prefer watching television to being with other children. Same with a child with a tendency for depression.
And in 2015, a study at the University of Maryland found that kids who watched “Sesame Street” as preschoolers were better prepared to learn when they entered kindergarten. Of course, that study didn’t look at what happened if a child binge-watched four straight hours of Bert and Ernie and Big Bird.
All the research says reading a book is good for you. Better even than listening to an audiobook or reading one on an e-reader. It reduces stress, promotes comprehension and imagination, alleviates depression, helps you sleep and may contribute to preventing Alzheimer’s.
Reading is active; watching TV is passive. The act of physically turning a page creates a momentary pause for understanding to sink in. Our brains have to work to translate the black squiggles on the page into words and then interpret the meaning and intent of those words. When a character is described as tall with brown hair, a reader creates her own picture. TV takes all that imagination away.
And yet sometimes it’s great to just sit on the couch and surrender. Let someone else do the work. Since my kids have left home, I watch more TV, and I look forward to it.
TV is egalitarian. Even if we aren’t all watching the same three networks anymore, we are all connected via video. Who didn’t catch at least some of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings or Bishop Curry’s homily at the Markle-Windsor royal wedding? At work or a party, it’s easier to share the latest plot twist in “The Americans” than to talk about how you’re finally getting around to reading “Middlemarch.” It’s more fun to discuss the baked-Alaska controversy on “The Great British Bake Off” than whether “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer deserved the Pulitzer Prize.
Many people tell me they just don’t read anymore, and that breaks my heart, but there’s a lot of good TV now, Golden Age-type TV. I’d like to say the answer to TV versus books must be as Aristotle said, “Moderation in all things,” though he never had a television or a computer and had to read his papyrus scrolls by candlelight.
I believe too much television is bad for you. I know I feel better if I binge-read, but it won’t stop me from watching too. I’m willing to risk thickening my frontal cortex. Therefore my resolution: When I watch, just as when I read, I’m going to banish feeling furtive and guilty. And take an extra walk.
My second DVD of “Outlander” has just arrived, and as soon as I get this essay done, the rest of my day is free.