Reading vs Watching TV

We’re smack in the middle of what critics have dubbed  “The Golden Age of Television”. Since the early 2000’s, network channels and, more recently, streaming services have been churning out content of increasing depth and quality, that have led some to boldly claim that shows are the new novels. To devout readers this could sound like blasphemy, but it’s hard to deny the literary cred of heavy hitters like Breaking Bad and True Detective. Let’s take a look at the different experiences each medium offers, as the friendly competition rages on. 

5) Time


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Television is performed, filmed, then distributed. It’s almost like a weekly play. Unless you’re on a binge, and thus aren’t keeping up with the show week to week, you don’t get to set your own pace when watching a series. The reading experience is a bit more customizable, as you can consume a book in 3 days or 3 weeks if you so choose.  

4) Communal vs Solitary Viewing

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One of the most salient perks of television is its ability to bring people together. Unless you are in a book club or a classroom setting, reading is a very intimate, generally solo activity. This can be a benefit unto itself, but it is much more difficult to get thousands of people worldwide talking about the same book on a weekly basis, that is, unless you follow us.

3) Performance 

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In books, the reader is the sole actor, playing all the characters in their imagination. By the end of a novel, you may have familiarized yourself with dozens of quirks and performed countless roles based on description and dialogue alone. In the best books, you will be able to keenly feel what it is like to be each character, thus working those empathy muscles. These characters may stay with you for years, depending on how they come to life. Television characters offer a more immediate catharsis through the actors’ performances. It’s a valuable but fast acting connection, that doesn’t necessarily live in the viewer’s head like a book character might.

2) Setting and Imagination

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Unless we’re talking CGI and animation, every TV show is limited by its set. There are a finite number of places in which a show can take place given budget restrictions, and the pesky road-blocks of being a human being, bound by biology, space, and time. Consciousness and the imagination is virtually boundless. The miracle of writing is that it can take your mind to another era, setting, or emotional space in a matter of sentences, or even words. Not to mention, it’s a pretty affordable enterprise. All the author needs is pen and paper, and all the reader needs is a library card.  

1) Words Win

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Michel Houellebecq once said, “Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave—a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend.” There are a great many Television period pieces like Mad Men and Downton Abbey devoted to synthesizing the look and feel of a bygone era. These shows are to be lauded for their set design and historical accuracy, but all they can really do is re-imagine another time. Any way you cut it, TV just hasn’t been around for that long, and humans have been writing things down since they could think. Books remain the best amalgamation of what we’ve learned about ourselves in our brief time on earth.  

 Featured image courtesy of Spin.