Respecting Ideals: Reading vs Watching


A while back, blogger Anil Dash wrote a controversial piece that lit up the blogosphere like a smartphone screen in a movie theater. The essay, entitled “Shushers: Wrong about Movies, Wrong about the World”, basically asserted that people who don’t want their theater-going experience ruined are wrongheaded, Draconian individuals who don’t understand how the world works. Needless to say, an avalanche of half-formed arguments and emotional reactions disguised as discourse roiled forth from the Internet, and after the dust had settled, nobody had really changed their minds about anything.

I’m not going to debunk Dash’s terrible argument (talented writers like Aisha Harris have already done a great job of that—you can read her rebuttal for Slate here). However, Dash’s essay did get me thinking about art consumption, and specifically, social expectations about art consumption in public spaces. I began to wonder why books—which usually require more concentration to consume than a film—don’t have such harsh social constraints built around their consumption. In other words: why are we perfectly willing and able to read books on a crowded subway train or on a park bench in a busy metropolis?

Can anybody really say that being surrounded by screaming bystanders lessens their enjoyment of a novel? I might just be strange, but I actually find that I consume literature far more efficiently when I’m reading in a public place than I do at home. Ben Umstead already wrote a great piece about the places we read in, so I don’t want to delve too far into debating the merits of different reading environments, but the curious facts remain: we can read in environments that would be considered completely inhospitable for movie-watching. Why?

We can read in environments that would be considered completely inhospitable for movie-watching. Why?

The easy answer is that movie-watching engages all of the actual senses and only a portion of the imagination. It’s an almost totally passive act of consumption. Reading, on the other hand, engages the brain and forces our minds to paint vivid pictures for us. Yes, we are lapping up the offerings of the author when we read, but he or she forces us to use our imaginations in a very active way. My knowledge of neuroscience hovers somewhere between “abysmal” and “laughably abysmal”, but is it too much to assume that when our minds are engaged in such levels of overdrive, we get better at blocking out the pesky annoyances around us? Isn’t this why you can sometimes miss your bus stop when you’re engaged in a really engrossing book, but accidentally re-read the same page fifteen times when you’re slogging through a terrible one?

Maybe then, the issue is one of technology. We’re a ways off from fully interactive movies that plug directly into our brains (for now), so we still have to deal with the texters, the talkers, et al. I’ve actually had these arguments lobbed at me by defenders of theater-texting: if the movie was actually engrossing, the theory goes, people wouldn’t want to text, and others wouldn’t be bothered by it. I suspect these arguments are most often employed by people who were born into the Internet age (though Anil Dash is pushing 40, so who knows); when you’re brought up in a world that doesn’t value deep burns and simmering self-reflection, the appropriate response to somebody who does is mockery.

Regardless, books are not movies and movies are not books, but they are both vehicles for narrative delivery. Why has the simpler form proven to be so much more flexible in terms of conditional consumption? Why do we not espouse the values of reading at home or in libraries? It’s not because books are somehow a “better” art form, and they manage to burrow so deep into our subconscious we can’t help but pay attention. I think the main difference lies in the gulf between ideal consumption experiences.

As Ben noted, we all have different ideas of the “best” place to read a book. It might be in a library, or in your own private study, or, in my case, on a crowded train jammed between two hobos. Whatever the case, somebody can always figure out a way to get to their ideal reading situation. Libraries (for the most part…hopefully) haven’t been besieged by hordes of screamers and phone-talkers yet, and we always have the refuge of our houses or apartments. Even if you live in a crowded, urban area, there will be some point in your day when you can read just the way you want to. After all, reading is a solitary, portable event. You can take the book with you wherever you want, as far away from anyone you want.

Watching movies, on the other hand, is anything but. If your ideal situation for screening a film is on a big screen, you have no choice but to A) shell out a ton of money for a great home theater rig or B) join your fellow movie-goers for a communal viewing experience. Film lovers can’t pack up the cinema and take it with them on the train or put it in their backyard. Those who wish to see a film on the silver screen are at the mercy of their fellow man. If you’re in a library and somebody is being loud or if a teenager won’t stop blasting crappy music on his cell phone, you can shush or you can leave. In a theater setting, your only option is to shush or go home, and with ticket prices nudging well past twelve dollars these days, most hardworking people are going to opt to shush.

The whole argument about talking versus shushing isn’t actually about privilege or cultural expectations or any of the other things that pseudo-intellectuals like Dash would like to shift the argument towards. It’s really about respecting an individual’s only chance for an ideal experience. If books were only available in libraries, you can bet dollars to donuts that talking and cell phone music wouldn’t be tolerated (they shouldn’t be anyway, but that’s besides the point). Maybe we should all take a deep breath and consider the impact of our actions on somebody’s well-deserved quiet time before we toss around “more-cultured-than-thou” arguments on either side of the debate.

John Jarzemsky

Column by John Jarzemsky

John is a freelance writer who has been with LitReactor since the days of its halcyon youth. You can check out John's blog, the poorly titled Super Roller Disco Monkey Hullabaloo!, for other reviews, random musings, and ill-thought out rants. He was recently published in Bushwick Nightz, a collection of short stories about the Brooklyn neighborhood in which he resides.

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Graham Paul Donovan's picture
Graham Paul Donovan from London is reading Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre September 19, 2013 - 9:09am

Great article. I think I can actually shine a little light on some of the questions here. Not with regard to whether people should or shouldn’t be allowed to talk in movie theatres. I wouldn’t know. But concerning your question as to why we can put up with all the disruptions of a busy public environment and still comfortably read. Most of the disruptions are aural, not physical. Yes, there can be a physical element to it but it’s not that bad. If it were that bad, bad enough to knock the book from your hands or to somehow get between you and the page, suffice to say, you’d no longer be able to read. So that leaves mostly the aural intrusions.

In acoustics, there’s a specialist area of study known as ‘psychoacoustics’ which doesn’t deal with how sound actually works–which is what regular acoustics is all about–but deals with how we perceive it, not to be confused with how we hear it, which is a biological matter. So it works like this: Any given environment at any given time has a general level of background noise, in studio engineering this level of noise is called the ‘noise floor’ and every environment has one, there’s no such thing on earth as absolute silence; only in space.  When you see a person reading on say, public transport, to pick just one example, the reason they’re able to do so is because they have conditioned themselves, with frequent use, to expect, and accept, the noise floor in that environment.  For a sound to get your attention in this environment it needs to rise significantly above the noise floor. The louder the noise floor, the louder the sound needs to be to get your attention (enough to disturb you) because how loud a sound seems is completely dependent on how loud the noise floor is. So, if someone were to clap there hands loudly in your bedroom just as you’re falling asleep it would be a loud sound which would disturb you, if they did it in a nightclub it’d be a quiet sound and you’d barely hear it.  So when someone’s on the subway, comfortably reading, it’s because they instinctively, consciously, and subconsciously know there’s absolutely nothing that they can do about so they don’t question it, they don’t try to fight it, it just is. It’s location specific though, Just because we can learn to accept it in an environment where we expect it, doesn’t mean we will tolerate that noise anywhere else, we have to been pre-conditioned (Or at the very least, pre-warned) to expect it there. So, if someone were sitting quietly at home reading in their favourite chair, and suddenly said chair starts bumping around like it does on the subway while it’s cacophony unexpectedly bursts from their stereo, they’d probably have a pretty hard time concentrating at first and would be rather upset. (Of course they’d get used to it in the end though, if it were to become a regular, inescapable thing.)

You can see this effect in other ways also, it’s why often people who grew up in remote, quiet areas, find it difficult to live in big cities because they’re ‘too loud’ and why city folk often also complain that rural areas are ‘too quiet’. (There are exception to this rule though, as sound is obviously not the only thing that shapes a person’s tendencies)

People now expect quiet at performances of classical music and I’d imagine anyone who couldn't help to preserve that would be ejected, but up until the late 1800s classical concerts were a raucous affair. Screaming, shouting, chanting, drinking and stamping were all expected and accepted. Everyone just put up with it, including the composers, conducters and musicians.

At the movie theatre, people want and expect quiet and even whispering voices can seem loud and obtrusive, so they get upset when they don’t get it. Even though, as you say, a movie attempts to engage more than just your sense of hearing, it does almost entirely use sound (dialogue) to deliver the specifics of the narrative, so people talking too loud for others to actually hear the narrative is the equivalent of a physical environment that is too physical to allow you to continue to read your book (and a film won't stop for you if you get distracted like a book will). It also has something to do with the fact that the intrusion is something they see as being done to them, not just something that is happening around them. This is why you may see someone getting very irate at someone listening to their ipod too loudly on the subway even though it’s nowhere near as loud or obtrusive as the sound of the actual train. They accept the noise of the train because it’s a by-product of the function of the train itself, you can’t have the train without the noise it makes. But the ipod they see as unnecessary and feel as though it’s being imposed on them because it doesn’t have to be there. While this may seem contrary to my earlier statement about the noise having to be significantly louder than the noise floor to get your attention, it’s not. If you’re someone who is inclined to get annoyed by such things, once you’ve heard it just a little, enough to just about notice it, you’ll zone in on it deliberately and it will begin too appear to increase in volume in the noise floor, due to the particular amount of attention you’re allocating for it.

So, from a psychoacoustical perspective. That’s why.

I agree with what you say at the end here, about respecting others, but I’d think that should just be a general mantra for life (not that I'm suggesting you think otherwise) and I imagine those who are thoughtless enough to talk in the movie theatre are thoughtless enough to be generally disrespectful in a plethora of other ways in all types of situations (And I feel sorry for your library situation man, that sucks, In London any noise like that is strictly forbidden in libraries)

Thanks for the read.


Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine September 19, 2013 - 6:57am

@Gray: Damn. Droppin' knowledge.

Also, bottom line: People who talk during movies are self-centered jerks. Simple as that.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine September 19, 2013 - 9:36am

And I, for one, have a problem reading on the train if someone near me is having an extra obnoxious conversation that stands out from the rest of the white noise. General loudness is fine, it is unique loudness that is a problem.

Graham Paul Donovan's picture
Graham Paul Donovan from London is reading Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre September 19, 2013 - 9:58am

(Half-baked pun alert) I guess everyone has their Achilles' ear ;)

Stephanie Noël's picture
Stephanie Noël from Canada is reading The Hunger Games September 20, 2013 - 11:25am

I think it all comes down to respect.  If someone talks while I'm watching a movie, I can't pause to movie and god back to the part I missed.

Books are different, as you said.  I have no problem reading in the metro or in crowded place as long as it's white noise.  The advantage is that if something starts bothering me, I can move to another place or simply close my book and pick up where I was later.  You can't do that with a movie.