The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Is There Life After Cable?

July 26, 2007
Washington, DC

So, I?ve done the unthinkable: I cancelled my cable service. I?ve got zilch, nada, zippo -- not even basic. Believe me, I?m not noble -- just regularly broke and trying to be less so. (Who knew you couldn?t afford digital cable AND regular trips to Macy?s yearlong one-day sales?) I expected that I?d at least be able to get the networks on my TV, albeit slightly fuzzy. I was wrong, wrong, and wrong. So what?s a girl to do on a Saturday afternoon, when she?d usually be channel surfing?


Communications Ace (thanks David!) Paulette Beete might as well face it, she's addicted to literature!"

One of the happiest times of my life as a reader was during a seven-month fellowship, when my days consisted of ferrying back armfuls of books from the library and crawling into bed to read them, with occasional breaks to make my world famous apple crisp. These days I still love to read, but I confess that most of my reading takes place on the subway in the morning or in the half hour before bed. During the rest of the time -- when I?m not at work -- I?m watching TV, with the justification of ?I just need to shut off my brain for a moment.? No, this isn?t leading to a TV and all electronic media are bad rant. TV can be quite good -- The Closer, Ugly Betty, and The Tudors, to name a few favorites What?s bad is what happens when I?m in front of the TV -- I zone in to the program and zone out of whatever thoughts happen to be bouncing around in my head. I happily shut off my brain, but never quite get around to rebooting it again until my alarm goes off at six, I shut the alarm off, and then somewhere around 7:30 I remember that I?m employed. Outside the home.

This Saturday, my first weekend in approximately 10 years without cable, while I was sitting on the couch, reading through my accumulated back issues of New York magazine, I found myself doing an odd thing -- thinking. Not problem solving or strategizing, as I do at work. Or perusing my internal pop culture database for appropriate witticisms, as I also do at work. But just thinking -- of nothing in particular and of everything in particular.

I admit I?d forgotten how really settling into read could be sometimes a type of decluttering. I don?t mean to get all psychobabble on you, but as I lay there reading about disappearing Coney Island, and the best food carts in the city, it seemed I was actually ?processing.? I would stop after a particularly interesting sentence or phrase and let it carom around my brain, igniting thoughts that were sometimes seemingly unrelated -- Did we ever actually go to Coney Island when I was a kid or do I just think we did? Why do I love fading boardwalks so much? Why do I remember so vividly those Greenpoint gas containers I used to see when we dropped my mother to work in the late 70s? -- except for the fact that they had been mustering somewhere in my brain.

The Big Read is based on the one book, one community model, rather than, say, the ?Reading is Fundamental? campaign, which emphasized the individual reader. We talk a lot about the outward benefits of reading, the kinds of external connections one can make through the common bond of having read the same book, of having gained some insight into and empathy for other modes of human existence. In our mixed-up mixing bowl of a country, I believe it?s vitally important that we continue to find ways of defining community, other than ethnicity, gender, or platinum card status. A shared reading experience is a fecund starting point from which to redefine the concept of ?community,? with the added bonus of being external enough to be relatively neutral territory, as compared to say faith traditions or sports team affections.

But this desired community-making effect of reading does not negate the fact that reading is also a solitary act. In my opinion, ?solitude? doesn?t immediately translate to ?alone?. Solitude, to me, implies a great deal of space that?s waiting to be filled, as opposed to loneliness which is a great deal of empty space. Being alone with yourself curled up on the sofa or on a park bench or happily cozy beneath blankets doesn?t brand a big L on your forehead.

E.M. Forster?s ?Only connect? is often used as a rallying cry to leave off navel gazing and get involved with your fellow human beings. But I think it also means that we should get involved with -- connect with -- ourselves. And no matter how compelling a story (yes, I did stay up till one a.m. reading all of the-book-that-must-not-be-named last night) -- the very act of reading, the very act of engaging with a physical object made up of printed text and white space, creates a passageway for meandering into the self. Each period at the end of each sentence is a place to take a breath, to reflect, to feel something tentatively sketched out start to define itself within. Each paragraph is surrounded by white space, an invitation to wander out of the book for a while, check in, see if anything?s awakening in your gut or your heart. As you physically turn the page, there?s a moment for that carrot-on-a-stick idea you?ve been chasing to finally coalesce, flesh itself out.

And I think that?s the difference between reading -- by which I mean, sitting down with the physical object -- and watching TV or reading online or what have you. There is no reflection time within that electronic, high-speed act of engagement. Even during the commercials, if you?re not throwing something in the microwave, you?re being pulled into the narrative of the snack food commercial, followed by the narrative of the car commercial, followed by the virtues of Viagara, before being pulled back into Top Chef. There?s a constant stream of input, input, input, without a chance to clear out anything until the TV is turned off, after which you?re left with a buzzing panoply of thoughts without having made the internal space in which to really take a good look at them.

In Felicia Knight?s guest blog, she wrote that we diligently spread the gospel of the Big Read because:

We are eager to have people experience the possibilities of language and storytelling, the fun of discussing, agreeing and disagreeing, the power of broadened perspective and of new conversations and conversions.

To the end of that sentence, I?d append . . . . with others and within themselves.

Happy Reading,