Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Reading on TV

Yesterday's new year reboot seems to have worked, as I got everything on my to-do list done, in addition to getting some exercise. And I finally have the Section From Hell revised and just about ready to send to my agent, after about three weeks (oops!).

One of my regular soapboxes is about how reading is treated in our society. Every so often, one of those surveys about how little people read comes out, and everyone starts wringing their hands and rending their garments about how awful this is, we're going straight to hell in a handbasket, etc., etc. But then there's not a lot of respect or support for pure reading for pleasure. Even the supposedly pro-book people have a nasty tendency to be only pro-the books they think you should read. None of that frivolous stuff -- no romance, chick-lit, science fiction, fantasy, and God forbid (gasp!) graphic novels. Just worthy Deep and Meaningful books (usually involving death and/or injustice, no happy endings allowed). There is an effort to encourage children to read, with all those "Reading is Fun!" campaigns, and trips to the school library being a treat. The books at that age are about cool things like Oobleck and magical chocolate factories. Then you get to high school, they throw a copy of The Scarlet Letter at you, tell you to give an oral report on what the author really meant (way to link the most common fear with reading!) and then say, "Ha! And you thought reading was fun, my little pretties! Mwa ha ha ha haaa!" Even the attempts to encourage reading in adults feel like high school all over again, with book clubs to discuss Deep and Meaningful books that are often about death and injustice, and yep, more oral reports and "but what did the author really mean?" discussions.

But it occurred to me last night that another problem is that we don't have too many cultural role models for reading for pleasure. Over at the Television Without Pity forums, there's a thread for posting mock motivational posters using images from TV series. Someone's been doing a series of posters showing TV characters reading, with the caption: "Books: Not all Writers are on Strike." Except when I looked at the pictures, they're not of leisure reading. The books are things like textbooks, tax preparation guides and even a dictionary. Then it occurred to me that I couldn't think of a TV character who really read for pleasure. Even the supposedly "bookish" characters just go to books for information. Brainy, nerdy Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer did a lot of reference reading, but in all that time we saw her in the school library, did we ever see her check out a novel? Over on the spinoff, Wesley always had his nose in a book, and Fred was a former librarian, but I don't recall ever seeing them read when it wasn't some reference book. On Doctor Who, the Doctor gave a rousing speech when they were trapped in a library about books being the best weapons of all, but have we ever seen a book in the TARDIS? (He does get partial credit for mentioning having read a novel when he talked about the last Harry Potter, but that book was more of an event than a book, so it doesn't necessarily indicate a love for pleasure reading, and it was more meant to show he was a time traveler, since he'd gone to the future to read it early -- and even further, it was likely meant as a kind of inside joke because the actor had been in a Harry Potter movie.) Supposedly brainy Sam Winchester never seems to read anything but reference materials.

I do have a vague mental image of Agent Scully curled up on her couch with a book, but I'm not sure if that was actually her watching an old movie (which I know she did in one episode). Rory Gilmore on the Gilmore Girls loved to read and read novels, but she was mostly reading the required reading list of approved Deep and Meaningful novels -- and reading the college list when she was in high school -- so it seemed more like they were showing how driven and accomplished she was and how far above the other kids who were still reading high school books she was rather than showing that reading is fun or a good way to spend leisure time. Ditto Julie on Friday Night Lights. The characters on Bones seem to read the main character's novels, but it doesn't sound like they read much else. The only pop culture figure I can think of who really and truly read fun books for pleasure is Belle from the Disney Beauty and the Beast, who seemed to be addicted to romantic adventure/fantasy stories (and even she was considered "odd" for her habit rather than it being just a way to entertain herself).

Authors may be a little better about weaving reading into their characters' lives, since we are bookworms, ourselves, but, come to think of it, did we ever see supposed bookworm Hermione Granger reading something that wasn't a reference book? I make a conscious effort to mention that my characters read for fun, even if there's no room for reading scenes in the books, but when you're showing characters in books reading, that's sort of preaching to the choir because anyone reading a book knows about reading for fun.

Granted, it's hard to depict reading in a visual medium because it's not too exciting to watch someone sitting still, and the parts of the characters' lives we see aren't the times when they have time to sit still and read. Still, I think there are subtle ways they could incorporate the idea of reading for fun into TV and movies. If they could do a whole Green Week on NBC, why not use the medium to encourage reading? (And, no, I don't think people will suddenly stop watching TV if they discover books -- no more so than encouraging people to go green would make them turn off the TV to save electricity. I read a ton and still watch way too much TV.) So, in case any TV people are out there, here are my suggestions (some are generic, some are specific to certain characters):
1) Show bookcases in characters' homes and books out as though they're being read, like on nightstands, coffee tables, end tables, kitchen tables, etc.
2) When a character digs through or spills a tote bag or purse, have a paperback novel be one of the things that comes up.
3) The cops/doctors/FBI agents could be shown at home reading a book when the pager/cell phone goes off to call them to action (it seems like they're usually having sex now). When arriving at the station, crime scene, hospital, etc., they could complain about being in the middle of a good part, so this better be important. (Or characters could be at a library or bookstore when paged.)
4) Characters could be holding a book, with their thumb marking their place, when they answer the doorbell.
5) When a character pulls the "I can wait" stunt while trying to get to a person avoiding him, have him pull out a novel to read to demonstrate that he's willing to wait a while.
6) Cops on a stakeout, or any other characters in a waiting situation where they chatter about random things, could talk about what they just read.
7) When a character visits another character's home for the first time, he could look at the bookcases and books lying around and comment as a way of making conversation or trying to analyze the person.
8) That end of episode montage of characters going about their lives to a current pop song they love to do on drama series could include some of the characters reading.
9) Sam Winchester could be sitting in the passenger seat, reading a book, while his brother drives, and that could trigger an argument when Dean picks on him for reading and Sam tells him to shut up because they're about to catch the bad guy or solve the mystery.
10) There could be a book shoved into some nook or cranny on the TARDIS control console (maybe near the sledgehammer).
11) Someone interviewing a crime victim or witness in the person's home could bond and gain the person's trust by noticing a book and mentioning having read it.

And it doesn't have to be the show's designated brainy person/nerd/computer hacker type who is shown to enjoy reading. Even non-nerds can read fun things for pleasure.

Any other ideas? Enough TV writers these days have blogs that I'm semi-tempted to start leaving comments to this effect and see if we can get a campaign going. Or I could e-mail a big book blog to see if they want to take this up.

I was planning a trip to Borders today, since they've sent some good coupons that are only good today, but at the moment I can't think of anything I'm dying to have right now, and I have a stack of library books to read. They always end up sending more coupons, week after week, so today's outing may be limited to the post office, and then back to work.

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