In a recent piece for The Guardian, columnist Bidisha essentially argued that everyone had given up on comfort reading in favour of film and TV. She describes comfort viewing as “the digital equivalent of a stack of warm, buttered toast”, and implies that reading is a chore – according to her, “sustained concentration is impossible”. But is that a fair reflection? What are the advantages of comfort reading and comfort viewing, and is one inherently better?
One point against books is there’s no clearly-defined time limit to them. My comfort TV of choice is usually something like Bob’s Burgers or The Simpsons. If I watch an episode, I know it’s going to last just over twenty minutes, and that’s not too much of a commitment. But with a book, I’ll want to reach the end of a chapter, or at least a reasonable page break, and I don’t always know when that’s going to come. Sure, I could skip ahead and know when that point comes, but then it’s less a relaxing reading experience than it is a race to the end point. The same can be true, of course, in the other direction. I enjoy watching films, but I only really get the TV to myself past 20:00 in my house – by then, a long viewing time can be a turn-off, and have me reaching for a book instead.
If I want to relax for ten minutes, I find the denouement of a crime novel far more satisfying than a YouTube clip
We can all enjoy TV at the same speed, but reading is a massively different experience. My partner and I tried reading together, but it just didn’t work. She reads considerably slower than I do and, although she likes reading, she often turns towards YouTube to de-stress because of the lack of any substantial time commitment. On the other hand, I get through books at a breakneck pace – I can finish a 300-page book in a couple of hours if I’m not distracted, and so I like to read. Near my house, there’s a place called the Astley Book Farm (head there if you get the chance, as it’s local and really good). I like to drive down, pick up a stack of Perry Mason books or some classic horror and tuck in. Or, for reading on the go, buy some magazines – I like games magazines and Scream, which is full of horror content.
Part of what Bidisha claims makes TV better is that it is, in essence, familiar. We sit down and we watch an episode of, say, Friends to relax because we’ve seen it before. It’s engaging, but we don’t need to be fully engaged because we already know what we’re getting. But I don’t see why that isn’t true of books too. I own a ton of crime books and, if I’ve a spare hour or I need to take the bus somewhere, I’ll normally take one with me. I normally remember the murders, the clues, the identity of the killer, but that’s precisely what makes them such good time-fillers. If I want to relax for ten minutes, I find the denouement of a crime novel far more satisfying than a YouTube clip.
To claim that reading is not a relaxing activity because we don’t have the concentration for it is not really a fair reflection
As a PhD student studying film, I do a lot of reading and watching as part of my everyday work. Consequently, what I do to pass time in the evening is generally dependent on what I’ve done in the day. If I spent all day reading, a film or an old episode of Midsomer Murders can be a nice break. But if I’ve been staring at a screen for hours on end, a book is a wonderful escape. I don’t think either one is particularly ‘better’, per se, but they are good for different circumstances.
Both reading and viewing allow us to escape into different worlds, to meet captivating characters and experience plot beats that we may or may not know, and I think both are wonderful ways of doing it. But to claim that reading is not a relaxing activity because we don’t have the concentration for it is not really a fair reflection. We all unwind in different ways, and most people I know will reach for a book just as often as they will flick on the TV. At the end of the day, whatever helps you relax, embrace it – you’ll certainly feel better for it.