Books–still better than TV?

Liel Liebovitz, on Tablet Magazine this week, argues that TV is for Dummies.

old TV

Photo of Sanyo TV courtesy of Kevin Simpson via Flickr

Like most titles, this one exaggerates Mr. Liebovitz statement: that even if TV has achieved more creative sophistication than ever before, it still fails to reach the majesty of the written word (or something to that effect). In his mind, books are still king. He bases his argument, as I understand it, on the inability of a visual art form to capture the interior life of characters, using a passage written by Henry James as evidence. In the first hour online, Mr. Liebovitz has received 19 comments on his article.

Well, I haven’t had a TV set in my home since 2000, so I can’t really attest to the increase quality of television programming in the last few years. But Mr. Liebovitz’s viewpoint has me thinking about something I read earlier this week: how writing differs from visual storytelling (movies and television) primarily because of its ability to capture what is going on inside character’s heads.

While I certainly don’t promote watching television (because it has so many ill effects on viewers whereas books increase a reader’s health), I wonder if the very characteristic that Mr. Liebovitz identifies as making books superior is what really makes comparing TV and literature like comparing apples to oranges. We’re talking about two different media. Is dance better than literature? Or television better than music?

Look, like Liel Liebovitz, I love to get into a main character’s head. But isn’t that just a preference?

If you’re looking for reasons to disdain TV, there are plenty: it negatively affects children’s school performance, contributes to the obesity epidemic, and stimulates an unhealthy inability to distinguish between wants and needs (due to commercials, for example). I just don’t necessarily buy Mr. Liebovitz’s argument.

How do you feel about the TV vs. books debate?

10 thoughts on “Books–still better than TV?

  1. Dear Mrs. Klempner,

    You stated, “I just dont necessarily buy Mr. Liebovitzs argument.” I do. Television is inherently incapable of capturing the inner lives of characters; this trait alone has had a crushing, detrimental effect on societies that watch television. A mental health study in the United States in the late 1960s noted a vast and surprising increase in chutzpah toward parents from children in their late teenage years; although nearly all teenagers seek to differentiate themselves from their parents, and even to “rebel” against them, this specific manner and intensity of rudeness was unexpected. The late 1960s saw the first generation of children who had been raised on several hours a day of television from their baby or toddler years until their late teens. Television had impaired the children’s capacity to view, and to interact with, other people as multidimensional beings replete with inner thoughts, complex emotions, human frailties, and sophisticated character. Instead, these children had been trained, for several hours per day, to perceive human beings as simple, two-dimensional characters with no depth whatsoever; consequently, it made no difference whether one treated another human with respect or rudeness, kindness or coldness, sensitivity or sarcasm. A society comprised of people who cannot relate to others as real people, with real lives, thoughts and feelings, can quickly become a cynical and cruel place (definitely the opposite of the types of noble societies that religious Jews strive to create, with great success).

    One of the many benefits of reading novels is the deep, immersive experience that novels provide. The background stories, feelings, character traits, opinions, and struggles that motivate the decisions behind a character’s actions enhance our ability to understand the complexity of the human being. By reading a well-written novel, with highly developed characters and settings, one hones one’s ability to understand, and to empathize with, others. This ability is critical to the development of a morally upright human being and ultimately benefits mankind as a whole.

    I would be interested in your response.

    Thanks, Nathaniel Wyckoff


    • Just to be clear, I’m still anti-TV. We don’t have one in our house and when we’re on vacation, the first thing we do is unplug the one in the hotel room. 😉 I guess I’m skeptical of the causality between the lack of an interior dialogue in characters and the negative effects of TV viewing.

      Look: there are books that show what’s going on inside a character’s head that are just garbage. Some of these books really messed with my head as a young reader. In fact, because you glimpse the character’s interior world, some of their screwed-up morality is more persuasive than if it appeared in a movie. I don’t want to point fingers, but how many novels promote adultery, justify crimes, promote an anti-G-d agenda, and so on? Quite a few.

      There’s plenty to hate about TV (you put your finger on a lot of them). It’s just this particular argument I don’t find persuasive.


  2. I agree with you that TV and books are different mediums, and so maybe they shouldn’t be judged apples to apples. However, I also feel that books are almost always going to be a fuller experience. I was watching an episode of Game of Thrones with my boyfriend earlier tonight, and we paused it while I explained a bit of back story from the book that the show didn’t mention. If I hadn’t read the books, that part of the story would have been lost to me. I don’t have cable (we watch a few shows online/on DVDs/etc.), so I read much more than I watch any kind of video. However, there are times when I just want to watch something. There are pluses and minuses to each medium.


  3. Though I enjoyed this post maybe the times and reasons we watch t.v. are different I guess. My children don’t see commercials and excel in school. My 7th grade daughter is in high honors Math and taking 9th grade math in 7th grade, is being published for her creative writing class, etc.

    Our son is super active and so not overweight. Underweight is how you’d describe him in the eyes of pediatricians. Can’t voice in on school since he’s almost 3 BUT he knows his numbers and letters so he’s good there.

    I agree t.v. can be very bad but like anything else moderation with everything. I know my step sister read too much that she spaced out on doing chores and homework. I guess anything done in excess could be bad (:


  4. I definitely agree that the two are totally different mediums. And that TV can’t totally capture the vast character dimensions and back story of good tale.

    That said (and I’m probably in the minority here), I don’t think TV itself is all that bad. I think it’s the programming and some people’s inclination to go overboard. Just like there are crummy books and good books, there’s crummy tv and good tv. I prefer books any day, but I also get some good ideas from tv and books.

    Of course, I also make sure to put them both away at a certain time and that I go outside on a regular basis, too. 🙂


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