Today I finished reading “Timequake,” by Kurt Vonnegut. It was pretty good, although he definitely wrote his best work when he was younger. It was almost like the unfortunately deformed progeny of his fiction and nonfiction. But that is immaterial. What is significant is that in one chapter, he bemoans the fact that the printed word has been forgone in favor of television and movies. And it started me thinking about it.
Here is my conclusion: Mr. Vonnegut, a brilliant writer, is wrong. I am no stranger to the wonderful world of reading. I have read thousands of books. I have also watched several hundred movies and dozens of television shows. Hell, I even play video games (that would be back up to hundreds, I think), and as I rot my brain out, I have often dwelled on the idea that one might be better than the other.
I’m not old, so I don’t have the bias towards things that existed when I was younger (as Mr. Vonnegut doubtless had in 1996). Perhaps I have a bias towards new stuff, it’s hard to tell. In any case, here’s what I thought.
Books are fascinating things. They can turn what is essentially just words into realms of the imagination. It is really terrific. If you can imagine it, someone has probably written a book about it. You can read books on any topic you want, although if you want a good book, it does narrow your choices significantly. Of course, not everyone likes books, and as Vonnegut points out, only recently (in the scope of human history) have large numbers of people been able to read anyway.
The most popular books, as you might know, are romance novels. If you’ve never read one (that includes me, actually, I’ve only read books that were romance as well as some other genre), then you probably think of the following things: Fabio; the phrases “well-muscled,” “rippling,” and “passion;” and sex scenes, as read by housewives. Not generally the best of literature, as a whole. Now I could be mistaken (unlikely), but I refuse to believe there is much good in the vast world of romantic fiction. Even the few good ones (which probably do exist) are dwarfed by volumes of crappy ones.
Movies are pretty cool too. They take a lot of work away from the imagination (admittedly), but are still quite fascinating, and the good ones should make other parts of your brain work. A good movie can accomplish a great deal, even where a similar book might fail miserably. People who complain that “the movie wasn’t as good as the book” (I raise my hand sheepishly here) probably didn’t want what the movie was offering. It might not be how you pictured it, or maybe some small detail is wrong, or maybe it’s a crock of shit under the guise of a good book.
There are excellent, excellent movies out there. They will use their medium well, and capture your imagination. They might make you think, and you can talk with your friends about what they mean. You could show them to people who are important to you, because you want them to feel the way you did, and to understand something, and talk about it. It is a cool thing.
But the movies that do the most business are plot-free, thought-free piles of action sequences and CGI effects. They have huge budgets, and often top-named actors, and lots of investors. I like lots of top-named actors, but it doesn’t mean they have to be the ones in the movie. Tom Cruise is a terrible actor, but he’s bankable so he gets lots of roles. I have no doubt there are poorer actors who could act circles around the lunatic.
Larry Miller remarked once that Hollywood could always make 10 movies that cost $10 million apiece, or 1 that costs $100 million. Assuming they get a capable cast and crew, if two of the first 10 do even moderately well, they will have made their investment back. The other eight will flop and can be called “cult films” in 20 years. But they don’t, for some reason. They make an “Evan Almighty,” which costs tons of money but tries too hard to appeal to everybody and ultimately fails.
TV is the hardest to defend. It’s good and does lots of things well, but Jesus, is it ever full of crap. First off, there are ads, which are destroying our youth. Then, there are reality shows. There are often a few good shows each season, and most get canceled, or changed to appeal to a different audience. There are realms of bad TV, and way too much of it gets watched.
And here, the misanthrope makes a conclusion. It is not the medium that inherently softens brains, but rather people who beg for softer brains. Great literature has been written for a few thousand years, but the romance that makes people feel slightly better sells so much more. Great movies can make you feel anything great books can (I’ll defend that statement), but blockbusters sell much better. TV is about 90% shit, 7% shit by-products, and 3% good. The 90% has good ratings, though. The other 10% gets canceled.
No, TV and movies don’t make people dumb. But if you want to make that argument, add books in there as well. Because they easily do it just as much. I prefer to think of people as doing it to themselves. So, don’t watch “Dancing with the Stars.” Don’t go see “I Am Legend,” or “The Golden Compass,” which will no doubt take all the ideas out of two truly good books, in the interest of visualizing the cool scenes for people with no imaginations. Read the books instead. Or better yet, any book that contains ideas and doesn’t have Fabio on it. If they make you think, though, please don’t blame me. I’ll be busy playing video games.
That is officially 995 words. Including this aside, that makes more than 1000 in a half hour. In case you’re wondering what that looks like on paper, it’s about 3.5 pages double spaced. I rule.