Sunday, January 21, 2018

Why I Gave Up Reading

It seems sacrilegious for a writer to say that he gave up reading books, but that’s what I admit to having done for a few months last year. I still feel guilty about it, as if I had betrayed my first love, yet I can’t see how I could have done anything differently.

My eyes were weary from reading so many words for hours every day, and I disliked needing to wear reading glasses to read books whose print was too small because the book designer was either younger than me or had better eyesight or because the publisher was too stingy to spend more money on printing a book with larger type and hence more pages.

My brain felt weary, too, from the many hours that I spent reading posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as from squinting at news stories that appeared almost minute-by-minute on my phone’s news feed (along with tweets from the foolish man in the White House who kept fouling the air, each tweet like a harpoon aimed to slay the Great White Whale of democracy).

So I gave up reading books for a few months, but I couldn't give up my love of stories. So, I started watching TV shows and movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime instead. I watched after dinner until going to bed, and then the next night I watched more… and more… and it was like eating a bagful of salty potato chips or popcorn or sugary sweet cotton candy. No matter how much I watched, I didn’t feel like I’d gotten enough when I reached the bottom of the bag (or the end of the show)… and had to return for more.

At first, I’ll admit, it was a relief to watch a story without having to “work” to read it, which only made me realize how much work it takes to read a novel. You have to think about each word and use your imagination to translate these words into images that you can project onto a blank screen (that you've drawn) in your head and on which the story can unfold in a series of images that you create in concert with the writer who struggled to put the words on the page.

Watching a story unfold on the screen, on the other hand, requires a different set of skills to interpret the story. You’re given the precise color of a character’s hair, the expression of a character’s response to danger or love, and you're given so much more--the buildings and sky and alleyways and pedestrians walking by--and you need to evaluate and re-evaluate each picture that you are seeing on the screen as it appears, constantly interpreting for meaning the images rapidly flashing before your eyes.

It had been a while since I sat down to watch TV shows, and what surprised me about the shows was the amount of nudity and violence displayed on screen.  These days nudity and violence appear to be an accepted way of holding the viewer’s attention, and it works, to a point. Who can turn away from unflinching depictions of sexual encounters or violent battles, where nothing is spared or left to the imagination? In shows about Henry the VIII, Viking kings and queens, Russian spies, and the French court at Versailles, you can watch love depicted in all its regal (and non-regal) forms. The curtain is drawn back. Lovers are revealed together in all their nakedness. The line between viewer and voyeur, mild scintillation vs hardcore pornography, is blurred, if not blotted out entirely.

After a while I couldn’t help asking myself why I continued watching these shows? Was I watching for the story or for the scenes of nudity and sexual encounters (the same way as a teen I used to read writers like Harold Robbins)? Even in the shows where sex and nudity didn’t play a role—Blue Bloods, Green Arrow, The Flash, 24—there was still a sense of watching for the eye-candy, the beauty or attractiveness of an actor or actress, rather than for the unfolding story, for how a character might have to struggle to overcome a challenge. 

Yet soon something began to gnaw at my conscience, a sense of purpose, perhaps, a question about why exactly I needed to watch these particular stories, or, more precisely, why I might require these stories told in this particular form and in this particular way. Luckily, Netflix and Amazon Prime give the viewer the opportunity to move forward or backward in a story, much like turning pages ahead or going back to check a passage, and I found myself skipping scenes that I didn’t feel advanced the story. Before long I skipped lots of scenes and began thinking not only about why I was watching these stories but if, in fact, these stories were well-told stories, which is the way that I usually think about stories.

I’m not a film critic by any means, but I began to think about the stories in terms of exposition in the same way that I like to think about a literary work. How does the opening scene introduce the main character’s problem? Why are two or three separate story lines operating simultaneously? How does each story line contribute to the other? How does the main character respond to the problem he or she has to confront? How do the minor characters contribute to the story? How do shifting points of view add or detract from the drama?

After a few months of watching the screen, my eyes recovered, I’m happy to say, and my love of stories on paper began to pull at me again. My imagination yearned for creating images rather than accepting images created by someone else’s imagination. I started looking for books to read again. I yearned for the sound of words in my ear. I longed for the chance to remove my earphones and shut off the screen and see words on a page, to enjoy the magical transformation that happens when I read a story and an image appears in my mind as the result of a word or words that a writer has put down on paper.

Since the start of the New Year I’ve turned off my tablet, content to read stories instead of watch them (although, admittedly, it’s hard to keep from tuning in to watch The Americans, or Poldark, or Lewis, or Endeavor, or a new show that I’ve found, Taken). But looking back on my months away from reading, I realize how much the time away has helped me better appreciate the gift of books and words, and the myriad skills that reading requires.



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