A few weeks ago, I went through a phase where all I wanted to do in the evenings was lie on the couch and watch TV. So I spent one evening watching nothing but favorite episodes of The X Files. (For fellow X-Philes, those episodes were “Bad Blood,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “The Unusual Suspects,” and “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.”) It was glorious and something I ought to do more often.
That last episode, “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man,” told the life story of the series villain, known to fans as the CSM or the “Cancer Man.” Early in the episode, he’s hanging out on his bunk in his army barracks reading a book. His friend (?) Bill Mulder shows up gives him grief for always reading and suggests that he go to the movies with some of the guys instead. Cancer Man (or Pre-cancer Man, as he hadn’t yet taken up smoking) looks at Mulder and says “I’d rather read the worst book ever written than watch the best movie ever made.” (This is, obviously, before he turned evil. How could an evil guy say that?)
Anyway, that line and the pleasant week of TV indulgence made me think about my own love of reading. While I don’t quite agree with the CSM’s sentiment (after all, even a bad movie wastes less time than a bad book), I’d rather read a good book than just about anything else. But does that make all other interests inferior to reading?
One of the things I’ve noticed in bookish culture is that there’s often an evangelical quality to our book talk. We say we want to share the joy of reading or grow a community of readers. I have nothing whatsoever against this impulse—and I’ve been known to share the “gospel of reading” myself—but I do wonder why we do this. We enjoy reading, yes, but why is it important that others do so?
Now before you slam your laptop shut and walk away, hear me out. I’m not talking here about efforts to teach kids to read or to expose them to good literature so they’ll have the chance to become readers. I’m also not talking about efforts to bring books to people who don’t have them or to help adults achieve basic levels of literacy. What I’m talking about are efforts to get people who are perfectly capable of reading but who have chosen other hobbies—music, pottery, gardening, running, skateboarding, cake decorating, whatever—to become avid readers.
I’ve heard tons of arguments in favor of promoting reading over other interests. Reading builds sustained focus and concentration. Reading teaches us about other people and helps us see other points of view. Reading is a refuge from the noise of modern life. All good points, and true. But is reading the only thing that does these things? Can a person be focused, compassionate, open-minded, and balanced without being a reader? Might there even be other activities that build these and other capacities as well as—or even better than—reading does?
Going back to the CSM’s remark about films vs. books, I can think of many films that require a level of concentration that is beyond me a lot of the time. A couple of weeks ago, I watched the movie Red Beard directed by Akira Kurosawa. I am a big Kurosawa fan, having loved Ran, Throne of Blood, and Ikiru. (The Seven Samurai was too long for me to cope with when I saw it. Maybe I’ll revisit it one day.) Red Beard is a wonderful film, but I couldn’t watch all of it in one sitting. The long periods of silence and slow storyline required a level of sustained concentration that I couldn’t manage all at once. I had to split my viewing into two nights. I find it far easier to concentrate on a slow-moving book for long periods than I do a slow-moving film.
The film, incidentally, was all about the power of compassion and the importance of seeing the humanity in even the lowliest of people, so that puts to bed the argument that books teach better, more life-affirming lessons than films. It just depends on the book, and on the film.
But film and television are passive entertainments, you may be thinking. Reading forces you to use your brain, to engage with the story, to follow the characters. Well, going back to my days of reading, and very occasionally posting on, X-Phile discussion boards and Buffy the Vampire Slayer e-mail lists, I can tell you that I was far less passive about my television in those days than I was about most of my reading. Many of the books I read just went in through my eyes and out of my brain. But through television, I was picking apart complex stories, analyzing three-dimensional characters, speculating about their long histories and uncertain futures. Could any television show support this level of engagement? Probably not, but then neither could just any book.
I’ve mostly talked here about story-based entertainments, but other hobbies, like baking, gaming, and running, also offer benefits that reading may or may not provide. Many hobbies require sustained attention and persistence if you’re going to get good. Some build creativity in a way reading might not. Certainly, running or cycling build physical endurance, and reading does not. (If you’re me, it works against it, as I’d rather read a book than work out. I make myself walk to the library because that turns books into an incentive to exercise.)
These days, it seems like literary culture is under threat, what with all the library and bookstore closings we hear about and the gleeful proclamations of the death of the book. I’m sure that some of the impulse we have to create new readers is born out of a desire to ensure that there will always be books available for those who want them and a market for those who write them. This is understandable and laudable. It truly is. But we ought to be careful in sharing our love of reading that we not, in our enthusiasm, be scornful of those who are choosing other avenues to growth or other pleasures to pursue. Reading is a good way to spend time, but not reading need not be a character flaw.