Columns > Published on September 18th, 2013

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.

About the author

John is a copy editor and contributing writer at LitReactor, and also does work for He holds a film degree from the University of Texas at Austin, and is currently hard at work on several as-yet unnamed projects.

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