Books vs. Television

From Scarlett Thomas’s excellent novel, Popco:

“I read a lot. I helped my grandfather with his various projects. I learnt how to compile crosswords….”

He shakes his head. “So basically you really were the most boring teenager in the world.”

He’s joking but I suddenly feel angry.

“So at age fourteen your spare time would have been filled with what? Saving the world? Talking to aliens? Being a spy?”

He doesn’t seem to know if I am joking or not. “I don’t know. When I was fourteen I think I just watched loads of cool stuff on TV.”

“Oh right. TV.” Now I really am cross. I can’t help it.

“What? What’s wrong with TV?”

“TV fools you that you’ve had a life you haven’t had. Don’t you know that? At least I had a life, even if it was, as you say, boring.”

“God, settle down, Alice.”

“No. I hate it. All that retro stuff that’s around at the moment. Remember when we all watched that thing on TV in the seventies and it was so ironic? I don’t even know what any of it’s called because we didn’t have a TV. It all just seems to be this stupid nostalgia for something that never existed in the first place. Just shapes on a screen. You were the one talking about everything just being pictures the other day. You must know what I mean.”

“I do. But I don’t agree.” He sips his tea calmly.

“What? You think all that stuff has some sort of point?”

“Yes, I do. I think that there is no difference between a narrative on TV and a narrative in a book. They are both told in pictures, really, it’s just that the little pictures on the page — the letters — spell out words, and the pictures on the screen are visual references. But you can’t tell me that sitting down and reading something is intrinsically better than watching the same story acted on a screen. That’s just snobbery.”

“No it isn’t. When did you last see a fifteen-hour-long TV drama that had no adverts and wasn’t written so a child could understand it?”

“What? I don’t…”

“On a TV drama you could cast yourself? Choose your own locations? Edit your own script? That’s what happens when you read a book. You have to actually connect with it. You don’t just sit there passively…”

“You are such a snob, Butler!”

“I”m not. Anyway, for the record, I never said that books were always better than anything on a screen. All I know is that on the whole I prefer books, but I have to say that I’d rather watch a classic film than read a trashy novel. And I love some videogames, of course. But that’s just my choice. I don’t care what anyone else does…”


  1. I can understand your sentiments, Abigail. POPCO was a warm-up for THE END OF MR. Y. Not quite up to the latter’s level, but an impressive achievement nonetheless. POPCO also crams in mathematics, game theory, cryptoanalysis and much more. If this is not your thing, then I understand and wish you a happy reading adventure.

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