I saw an interesting post on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog the other day about a new trend in entertainment consumption that book publishers are trying to capitalize on. We’ve all heard of “binge watching” as the new it term for sitting down and bombing through an entire season of “Battlestar Galactica” or “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix; there’s something absolutely addictive not only in the way the episodes are framed these days, but even in the way they’re queued on our computers, inviting us to watch more and more. Now publishers are trying to make “binge reading” a thing. The Christian Science Monitor has more: read the article here.
Do you think binge reading will catch on the way binge watching has? I think there are two problems with the way the article is being framed; first, likening binge reading to binge viewing is misunderstanding the fundamental difference in thought that occurs when reading and when watching tv; and second, binge reading has already existed long before the advent of television. This may sound a little contradictory, but bear with me.
On the first count, the nature (and pleasure) of binge watching is all about the ability to turn off the brain, to think a little less. The way that people binge watch these days, they have the show running while they’re flicking through news on a tablet, or they’ve got it running while they’re doing the laundry, or they’ll watch episodes as breaks between doing homework or writing that grueling college essay. They’re reward themselves with an episode. The actual artistic content of the episode is almost beside the point in many of these binge watching experiences, I think, from what I’ve learned by questioning my students about their habits. You watch so you can take a breather, let your mouth fall open a bit, eat a snack and sit still while still feeling like you’re doing something.
Reading, on the other hand, particularly reading fiction, will always be a more engaging, challenging, and participatory activity than the most riveting television. Numerous MRI brain studies have shown this, and we know on a common sense level already. When we’re reading, we’re engaged with the story, contemplating or struggling to understand the language, conjuring up the mental images with our own mental effort. Reading is communication, and it’s memory; it’s a game and a conversation, a puzzle and a song that you have to help sing. It’ll never be the pure entertainment, the pure blank buzzing of the brain, that most binge watching entails.
As for the other note, any devoted reader knows that binge reading in its own way already exists. Who hasn’t curled up with a book for hour upon hour, refusing to put it down until the story is done? Who hasn’t read a book with a flashlight under the covers? Who hasn’t stayed up too late reading? Who hasn’t promised to stop at one chapter or at the second book of the trilogy, but then plunged right ahead when the last page was turned? The excitement and delight of reading, particularly when young, often by its nature becomes a binge-like activity.