SPidge Tales

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Put Down That Book and Turn on the Darn T.V.

I like the new Al Gore. His movie on global warming was enlightening, and if his thesis is true (it probably is) he is a modern day prophet. He has transformed from a stodgy condescending presidential candidate into a venerable public citizen. If only he would have stuck to global warming and not tried solve all our country’s problems, like he is attempting to do in his new best selling book, Assault on Reason. He praises the power of the printed word and its ability to inform citizens in public debate (all well and good), before going in a predictable direction and criticizing T.V. as the cause of all our problems. Fear not! There is a silver lining, says Gore. The Internet can save us. The Internet is the new information superhighway.

I know the Internet has lots of useful information. During my junior year at St. Mike’s, one of my friends had a sketchy roommate. Once a week, my friend had a four-hour night class he had to go to. One evening, as he headed to class, he realized halfway there he had forgotten something. He hurried back to the dorm room to pick it up. As he opened the door, he saw his sketchy roommate sitting in front of the computer, wearing nothing but tighty-whitey underwear, dripping with sweat.

A few days later, I was visiting my friend. His roommate wasn’t around, so we decided to check the computer and see what kind of important research he had been doing. His cookies revealed visits to websites on women from Asia. Apparently, he must have been doing an investigative study of the effects of warm climate on females in southern Asian countries, because most of the websites (I assume, I didn’t open any of the cookies) seemed to be information spots for hot Asian women.

So, Al Gore is right. The Internet grants access to a wealth of important information. Who knows how my friend’s sketchy roommate would have researched that project without the information superhighway. My beef is not with Gore’s praise of the Internet, nor with his praise of books. The written word is swell. I just don’t understand why he believes it necessary to criticize T.V.

Ever since the dawn of man, or at least since the invention of T.V., people have been scolding us to stop watching so much T.V., turn off the T.V., and read more books. Usually these people are delivering their message on T.V. Whenever a film is made based on a novel, you can be sure before the credits roll on the movie premiere, someone will start telling us how much better the book version is.

Somehow, the story goes, civilization began falling apart sometime between the invention of moving pictures and the innovation of the small black and white home television. People put away their books, libraries started growing cobwebs, and families that used to have stimulating conversation over tea about the newest Sherlock Holmes mystery now sat mindlessly staring into the idiot box.

Just like the story of the pretty girl who wears glasses and a ponytail who the boys don’t realize is hot until she takes off the spectacles and lets down her hair, the tale of T.V. ruining us is a myth. The cultural curmudgeons like to trot out their gloomy story of a world where humans read books since the dawn of civilization, but the invention of T.V. has slowly but steadily been pushing books to the dustbin of history. This story is not true. For most of human history, the majority of people were illiterate. The written word was not invented until sometime around 5000 years ago. Modern (homo sapiens) man had been around upwards of a hundred thousand years or more before that during what we call prehistory, since history by definition is the story of man since he first began to write stuff down. The humans of old communicated first through grunting, then through speaking. They left information to their descendents through pictures and stone carvings (such as the pictures in the Lascaux Cave, an early ancestor to the moving pictures we now call T.V.).

Even when humans did create written language, it was (by necessity, since Gutenberg did not invent his printing press until the 15th century AD) limited to a small number of educated people. Stories were told, and information was shared, by word of mouth, or through artistic performance. All the great writers and storytellers through history up until the modern age wrote plays or epic poems. Sophocles wrote Greek tragedies meant to be performed on stage. Shakespeare, the greatest writer the English language has ever known, wrote plays intended to be seen more than read. The epic poems of Homer, Virgil, and Dante were meant to be listened to. We are social creatures, and art is best experienced in community. Motion pictures allow the timeless art of public performance to be transposed to the masses in the comfort of their own homes.

I have no problem with books. I read all the time. But we don’t need to condemn television to appreciate books. Yes, there is bad television. Most new sitcoms suck, and reality T.V. is vapid waste of time and space. But not every book is a classic, either. Have you ever read a Dan Brown novel? Some books are better than the movie version; certain books are too long or dialogue oriented to fit well on screen. Some movies, though, such as The Godfather, are better than paperback originals. Some, such as Lord of the Rings, if done well, though not superior to the book, add to the novel as a nice companion piece. Tonight, put down that book, stop trying to show off, join your friends for a few hours, and turn on the darn T.V.


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