Barzak quotes a passage from Le Guin about watching TV being passive, and reading books being active.
(It sounds like the focus of the Le Guin essay he's quoting was not on that particular topic, but I haven't read the whole essay yet, just the bit Barzak quoted. Thus, this entry of mine is not a response to the whole essay, but rather to the specific bit Barzak quoted--and, more generally, to the many many instances of that argument that I've heard from other bibliophiles over the years.)
I've heard this argument before--visual media involves passive watching, books involve active reading--but it's never really made sense to me.
Sure, books require you to use visual and auditory imagination. But both TV and books require you to use your imagination for the other senses. And both require you to use your imagination to model the characters and the emotions.
Plenty of bad TV spells things out (and does the work for you, as Le Guin puts it) so you don't have to think so much; but then, so does plenty of bad writing.
Also, what does this argument say about audiobooks? When you're listening to an audiobook, you no longer have to move your eyes across the page, or turn pages; you no longer have to imagine the characters' voices; does that mean that listening to an audiobook is a passive activity? What about listening to someone read aloud to you? Is that really all that much more passive than reading the same story to yourself? What if the reader is really good, and the writing is mediocre, and the reader brings the work to life in a way that wouldn't happen if you were looking at the words on the page?
The best TV and movies I've seen have engaged me as fully and thoroughly, at all levels, as the best fiction I've read. I don't feel passive when I'm on the edge of my seat, tense and excited about what's going to happen next, or when I'm crying in sympathy with the characters. To paraphrase what Le Guin said about books, a TV show "won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it."
(Well, sure, some TV engages in manipulative heartstring-tugging. But so does some prose fiction.)
I'll certainly grant that reading provides some different pleasures from watching. But then, reading hard sf provides some different pleasures from reading a cookbook or a newspaper article or a blog or a romance novel. And those are all still much too monolithic categories, in terms of the kinds of pleasures they afford. I don't see the point of claiming that one of those sets of pleasures is superior to another.
Le Guin says that "reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind." So are all sorts of other things. Any artistic endeavor is a collaboration between the creator (in many cases, lots of creators, including performers) and the audience. (And sometimes the categories "creators" and "audience" break down entirely, but that's another topic.) I don't think it helps the cause of promoting reading (a cause I wholeheartedly endorse) to smugly look down our noses at people who are more interested in other media.
. . . Three addenda that occurred to me later:
- What about reading a comic book? That gives you visuals, but still no sound (but sometimes gives visual interpretation of sound). Is that active or passive? What if a parent reads a picture book aloud to a kid? The kid is getting visuals and sound--nothing left to the imagination, even though the physical object is still a book. Active or passive?
- Despite being a lifelong avid reader, my visual imagination has never been terribly good. A good designer and good actors can give me much more immersive and interesting visuals than my imagination usually serves up while I'm reading. If that's passivity on my part, I'm not convinced it's bad.
- In general, if you compare the best things in one category to the worst in a similar category, it should be no surprise when you demonstrate that the good things are better than the bad things. That says nothing, however, about the relative worth of the other items in the two categories.