Here is the second essay: here is the one I wrote because I felt dirty after writing the first one. Because I don’t actually think movies are better than books; not at all, not in any way. In fact, I think the preference for movies over books is extremely harmful to our society.
So I wrote this one. Please note: it is directed at my students, who are as I describe them here. I expect that people who read this blog are not the non-readers I describe. Though the ending call to action still applies, to all of us who haven’t given up hope.
Not sure if I have given up or not, yet. But this essay is pretty clearly on the side of despair.
Everything Is Terrible And We’re All Going To Die
I’m not like you.
I’m sure that’s not a surprise.
Unlike most teachers, I think, and say, that grades don’t matter and test scores don’t matter. Because all that matters is learning, and grades and tests don’t measure that; they may test what you know, in terms so specific that they become useless, but that doesn’t say what you will do with that so-specific knowledge: will you forget it the minute the test is over, the grade is filed? Will you be inspired by that knowledge? Affected by it, changed by it? Tests can never measure that, and grades can never rate that. That change, that inspiration, is the purpose and value of education. That’s what matters.
Unlike most of America, and presumably the rest of the world, I don’t like money. I like a few of the things it can buy me, like a comfortable home, food, electricity, pirate outfits, Converse, books, coffee; but money itself is a trap. It leads us down a very specific path, a path that we must not deviate from, or else we don’t get the money; the problem is, that once we reach the end of that path, we find that the money isn’t what we want. What we want is freedom from the money, or more precisely, from the need to continue procuring the money. But the more money we make, the more stuff we buy, and the longer we have to keep getting money to pay for the new stuff. It’s a trap. I don’t like it. That’s the rest of the reason why I don’t believe in the value of grades: because every argument for grades comes back to money.
I’ve already lost you, haven’t I? Sure: you don’t care about me, or about what I believe; if what I have to say has some interest or benefit for you, you’ll read it – but if not, then you won’t. And me preaching at you doesn’t interest you or benefit you: it doesn’t entertain you, doesn’t dispel the cloud of melancholy that darkens most of your days, and which you are constantly seeking to escape through whatever momentary distraction you can find; and it doesn’t earn you money. Why would you read this, just for the sake of reading? Please.
Because unlike me, you don’t read.
DISCLAIMER: Yes, I know there are exceptions. I know there are people reading this who are readers. But I also know there aren’t very many. (Let’s be clear: “reading” Facebook or Twitter or Reddit is not reading. Reading here means books. E-books count, but memes and BuzzFeed and the captions on YouTube videos do not.) Most people read when they are forced to, by English teachers like me; most people will read something if there is “buzz” about it. (Meaning: if it is exciting.) But most people would rather wait for the movie. Even with assigned reading, the majority of people don’t read the whole book; they read enough to know they don’t want to read any more, and then they look at the SparkNotes, or they get their friend who is a reader to tell them about the rest of it, or they just fake it on the test – because the reading doesn’t matter, what matters is the grade, which gets you into the college, which gets you the job, which gets you the money.
Allow me to quote from a book that most of you haven’t read, or if you have, you didn’t pay enough attention to.
“Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending…Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumour of a title to you, Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: ‘Now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours.’ Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.
“Speed up the film, Montag, quick…Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!
“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”
That is from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
And it’s you. You only read to get to the ending; once you know the ending, you stop reading – and for the same reason, you never re-read. If you know enough to answer questions about a book – or about anything, really – you don’t see any need to keep learning about it; you can already answer the questions. You don’t see the need to learn anything other than what you will need to earn money, hopefully lots of money; and the purpose of earning that money is – pleasure.
The movie-vs.-book argument is built on a flawed foundation, the same flawed foundation that the dystopian society in Bradbury’s novel is based on: the idea of happiness. Captain Beatty, the same evil clown who explains to the protagonist Montag how our society turned into theirs, also says this: “Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”
When we try to decide whether movies or books are better based on the idea of which is more entertaining, the argument is immediately flawed: not only is entertainment transitory and essentially meaningless, but it is also too subjective to offer any coherent judgment: this fellow says he likes books more because they are more entertaining; this chap says he likes movies more for the same reason; and neither can be wrong, and neither can be right. We must turn to Bradbury – a novelist, of course – for a reasonable determination of value. If we believe that human society is valuable and worth preserving, then books offer a better opportunity for the continuation of the species than do movies. If, on the other hand, human culture is nothing more than what Beatty describes – something that exists only to provide its constituents with pleasure, with titillation – then it doesn’t matter whether books or movies are better; at that point, humanity doesn’t matter, because something that exists only to please itself is too insular, short-sighted and pathetic to survive.
In that case, movies can be better. You can just keep watching Netflix until the ice caps melt and the water supply vanishes and the food supply follows; maybe you can watch The Road to get some pointers on what comes next. I’d tell you to read the novel by Cormac McCarthy, but – well. Don’t worry: the movie has Viggo Mortensen.
Bradbury shows in his book – and any observant student of humanity can confirm – that books stimulate thought, and that novels promote empathy. Books of any stripe can provide evidence, rational argument, and conclusions about any subject; following the path of reason improves one’s ability to do the same. Novels create characters, who then give the reader a glimpse into their lives and psyches; understanding those people, assuming one can suspend disbelief enough to see the characters in a novel as people, at least potential people, improves our ability to understand actual people. Movies do neither of those things. Bradbury, who loved movies and television, has his Wise Old Man character offer the possibility that movies and television could offer the same thing that books do – the same argument I’ve been hearing for years from my students when they try to explain to me why they don’t need to read, not really – but in my opinion, Bradbury was wrong about that. I don’t think movies and television can help, not at all.
The key, I think, is imagination. Imagination is the survival skill that enabled humanity to rise to the top of the food chain; because we could imagine what would happen when the mammoth came by, or when the saber-toothed cat jumped out of those bushes, we were able to plan for the possibility; that advance preparation made up for our total lack of physical prowess compared to other species. Imagination gave us the chance to survive long enough to build a civilization; imagination, in the form of ambition and aspirations, gave us a reason to build a civilization and allowed us to build civilization into what it is today; imagination would allow us to solve the problems we face that threaten our survival in the future.
If we still had imagination, that is. But you see, imagination requires a human intellect to create: to fill in blanks, to build images and scenes based only on hints. The kinds of things we do when we read, where even the best authors can only tell, never show. The kinds of things we never do when we watch movies or television, because they show: the images are created for us, the characters are presented to us, a fait accompli, without any need for our participation, for our imagination. The most we can do with a movie is decide if we like the image as presented to us; decide if it is entertaining or not.
Now, someone with imagination can watch a movie or a television show and have a new idea; they can think of what could have happened if the characters had encountered a different situation, or had different traits, or different resources; a person with an imagination could think of how a situation they watched on Netflix could parallel one in real life, and how the Netflix situation could lead to a real-life solution.
But you don’t get imagination from watching movies. You get it from reading books.
There is some good news. Our technology already exists, as does our science; and the lucky thing is, one person with imagination can keep a hundred engineers working, a thousand, more – just ask Elon Musk. Or Nikola Tesla. So as long as there are a few readers, a few thinkers, those people may be able to keep us afloat, in terms of problem-solving and innovation, for a few generations more; but that’s where we hit the empathy snag. You see, the notable problem in the society of Fahrenheit 451 (By the way: are you tired of me talking about a fictional society instead of the real world? Yeah. Check your phone: maybe there’s something more interesting to watch on YouTube. People falling down, or something. “Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag; everything bang, boff, and wow!” What am I saying? You’re not still reading this.) isn’t a lack of technology; their technology is more advanced than ours. The problem is that they don’t care about each other, and thus they don’t care about themselves. They run each other down in cars for fun. They commit suicide at an absurd rate – and they don’t care. They go to war, and nobody really pays any attention until the bombs actually drop on their heads: and even then, they only notice when the television screen goes blank, in the split second before it all turns to ash and dust and nothing.
You’re heading that way, now. People don’t care about each other the way they used to. Oh, some still do; most still care to a certain extent – but a lesser extent than in the past. I can tell because look at your politics: not that you elected Mr. Trump, but the reason why you did – because you got tired of caring about other people’s problems. You don’t want to worry about refugees, or about problems in other nations, or the reasons why people do things we don’t understand, like carry out terrorist attacks in the name of an ideal; you don’t want to think about long-term issues like climate change, and you don’t want to pay taxes that don’t help you directly – don’t want to pay for other people who can’t find jobs, or who get hooked on drugs. You want to keep your money for yourself, not spend it on other people. Just like you don’t want to learn things that don’t directly increase your chances of finding a job that will earn you more money. Those other things don’t matter. Those other people don’t matter.
In Fahrenheit 451, when Montag goes looking for a way to solve the problem – he can’t possibly think of a solution himself, never having used his imagination and barely his intellect in his bookless life – he finds an old English professor, a man named Faber. He asks Faber what they can do, and Faber doesn’t give Montag much hope.
“The whole culture’s shot through. The skeleton needs melting and re-shaping. Good God, it isn’t as simple as just picking up a book you laid down half a century ago. Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen [In the novel, the firemen burn banned books, and the houses where they are hidden. And sometimes the people who hid them.] provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it’s a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels any more. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily. Can you dance faster than the White Clown, shout louder than `Mr. Gimmick’ and the [television]`families’? If you can, you’ll win your way, Montag. In any event, you’re a fool. People are having fun.”
“Committing suicide! Murdering!”
A bomber flight had been moving east all the time they talked, and only now did the two men stop and listen, feeling the great jet sound tremble inside themselves.
“Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the families. Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”
“There has to be someone ready when it blows up.”
“What? Men quoting Milton? Saying, I remember Sophocles? Reminding the survivors that man has his good side, too? They will only gather up their stones to hurl at each other. Montag, go home. Go to bed. Why waste your final hours racing about your cage denying you’re a squirrel?”
“Then you don’t care any more?”
“I care so much I’m sick.”
“And you won’t help me?”
“Good night, good night.”
On the off-chance that you don’t like what I’ve said here, and you care enough to do something about it, the solution is simple: read. Read for real, read for your mind and your imagination; read for your future. It doesn’t matter what you read: it only matters how, and how much. Read with your mind, and read as much as you can. If you ever have younger people you can influence, as a teacher or a parent or a mentor of any kind, try to get them to read, too. It doesn’t take everyone: it just takes some. More than a few, if we can.
I hope for your sake that you do. As for me, I’ll be dead by the time the world falls apart. I’d like to think that the books I write will outlive me.
But I doubt it.
Good night, good night.