Turn Off

I was talking with a friend recently about something or other, and it reminded her of an advertisement she had seen.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Did you see the advertisement for [product]?”

“Uh, no,” I said.

And she went on to explain what had been in the ad, and why it was relevant to our discussion. This exchange, of being asked whether or not I have seen a television ad, happens a lot more frequently than one might imagine. Every time, my response is in the negative, because I do not watch television.

“Oh,” someone will say, “like you only watch the news?”

“No,” I explain. “I don’t watch television.”

“But you keep up with shows, right?”

“Uhm, not really, no.*”

“But…how can you not watch tv?”

It’s pretty easy, actually, when you do not own one. I would like to say that I am taking some profound moral stance here, that I turn up my nose at television whenever I see it, that I do not want to contribute to the downfall of our culture by giving in to the mass media beast, but this is not really true. Like most people who were raised without television, I am actually fascinated by televisions and advertising. Every time I get in proximity to a television, I am sucked in, there to sit vacantly staring until someone leads me away. This causes a deep and intense shame in me, because I see it as a personal weakness.

It troubles me, and it is one of the reasons I did not want to acquire a television when I moved away from home. I very briefly had one, right around the time the war in Iraq broke out, because a friend was loaning it to me for an assortment of reasons which I will not go into. Lo and behold, the house I was living in happened to have an active cable connection. After a week, I gave the television back, because I did not like the person that I turned into, endlessly seeking something to watch, constantly glued to the television at the cost of a social life, eating, going outside, living.

Television is such a topic of controversy in Northern California, but it is also such an accepted part of people’s lives. Most of the people I know, including the hippie-dippie liberals, cannot comprehend the idea of not watching television and not owning a television. The boob tube is so integrated into their lives that sometimes they have a difficult time relating to me, especially when I do not get references to commercials, television shows, and television culture.

I have always been so steeped in books that the appeal of visual media has never quite gripped me like it does other people. I like movies, but I also do not think that I would care if I never saw another movie again. Not that I want this to happen; I think I am greatly enriched by a lot of the movies I watch, and the entertainment that they offer me. When I want to watch a movie, I do it on my computer, as a general rule, and more rarely in the theatre. My father and I are very similar in that regard, with both of us having little interest in movies, television, and similar media.

I value silence, stillness, sitting calmly and contemplating things, and all of these values seem to be antithetical to people who have televisions in their lives. They fidget, they twitch, they cannot stand sitting across from each other at a table at the Headlands, reading silently, not talking. They bore easily, waiting for the channel to change and something new to happen. When they ask me what I did all day and I say “I sat on the deck and read,” they look at me with pitying expressions, because sitting on the deck and reading sounds like a form of obscure torture to them.

They never seem to read, which is totally alien to my way of life. I read, at a minimum, five books a week. I read in the morning before I start work, I read in the afternoon, I read into the night. And these people…my God, they think that finishing a book in a month is an accomplishment! When someone asks me if I have read anything good lately, I can recite a litany of books ranging from popcorn fiction to serious, dense, no-foolies non-fiction tomes. This makes me sound rather elitist, I realize, but I think we have already established that I am a snob, in some senses. To be blunt, I don’t really like people who do not read, and many people who watch television do not appear to read, or at least not in any serious volume.

There is a fundamental divide, for me, between my television using friends and my reading friends. The two rarely overlap, and I have to say, I would rather spend time with the readers, because we have more in common. Similar values and experiences, for example. But also because my reading friends think that a day hanging out at the house drinking tea and reading is a day well spent, even if we exchange only a handful of words, while my television friends want to be out and about and doing things, constantly seeking entertainment, never sitting still for a moment. While I certainly like adventuring, there is something to be said for taking time to pause and reflect upon your life. There’s something to be said for reading a challenging book, rather than sticking to fiction and pop science. For me, every day is an opportunity to learn something new and intriguing, but apparently other people don’t feel that way. I really feel that the television has a major impact on the way people live, behave, think.

What about you, gentle readers. Television or books? Am I just being a culture snob here, or is there some thread of truth to my thoughts on television watchers and readers?

*Technically this is a lie, because I do watch a few shows on Innertube, the online interface which CBS uses to post their shows. But I would argue that this is only “watching television” in the most abstract sense, since it lacks many of the defining characteristics of “television.” Although perhaps I am only trying to justify my fondness for CSI.