Tovly's Blog

Books are Overrated

Why are books considered the superior medium?

June 20, 2020

I’m in the middle of reading “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond. It’s an interesting enough read, but my progress through it has been painfully slow. It’s been a month of reading, even though I’m sure I could devour it within a day if I really wanted to. In fact, I’m a voracious binge media consumer, regularly absorbing years worth of a series in short periods of time. I watched all of Game of Thrones in two weeks (during finals no less). I read all of the Avatar Comics (~1000 pages) in a couple days. I churned through roughly 40 episodes (~17 hours) of the Revolutions podcast over a few weeks. In short, when I enjoy a series, regardless of the medium, I consume it quickly. Thus, my slow progress through “Guns, Germs, and Steel” puzzled me. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the content. When I was reading the book, I was deeply engaged and fascinated. Then, I remembered that CGP Grey had produced two small video adaptations of portions of the book. These had been some of my favorite videos; yet, when covered similarly in the book, I was clearly less engaged. Thus, I began to think that the disparity lay not in the content but rather in the medium: a book.1

From the development of writing in the late 3000s BCE until the developments of the phonograph and movie camera in the 1800s, the written word was our only method of recording language. From the beginning, this written language was the domain of the elite. Literacy was reserved for the scribes who were afforded the training needed to read and write in these incredibly complex writing systems. Only very recently has this literacy spread to the masses: as recently as 1900, 79% of humans were illiterate.

I suspect that this entrenched elitism has given books their veneer of superiority over other mediums. Time and time again, I hear, implicitly and explicitly, a call to read books over consuming other media. Think of the parent telling their child to “get off your damn phone and read a book!”. Think of the celebrities proudly sharing their book lists. Think of the attempts to read one book a week and how it “changes your life”. Now, for learning readers, I do think books serve as a good reading development tool. They force the learner to work through a lengthy and possibly complex narrative, building their reading comprehension. But for everyone else, is a book inherently superior to other media? I cannot see a reason why it would be. For one thing, books tend to be among the most verbose media. Sure, a season of a TV show might take as much time to consume as a book, but often much more happens in that same time. The book often describes the narrative in painstaking detail, devoting paragraphs of flowery text to the imagery and characterization. By contrast, a video can simply display the imagery and characterization, saving an immense amount of time. Of course, many find beauty in the language of books themselves, a beauty different from and not replaceable by similar techniques in other media. I don't deny this true enjoyment and appreciation. But, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Thus, to take this particular love of some and apply it to all as a normative assertion is unfair.

Essentially, power to those who love books, but just because you do does not mean books themselves are automatically a superior medium. I don't think these book lovers are the ones creating this societal pressure though. Instead, I suspect it comes with books' age and history far outstripping other media. With this age and association with the elite, books have been elevated above other media, particularly with regard to intellectual achievement and stimulation. I hope we can step back and pursue a more holistic outlook on the media landscape without entrenched notions of superiority.

  1. The word I'm looking for here is closer to "novel" but that implies fiction. I want to include prose works of book-length, but exclude things like textbooks. Is there a word for this? Perhaps "literature" but I feel this also implies fiction.