Thursday, January 14, 2016

Choosing to Read Books In A Digital World: Part 1.

This is the first part of a series of posts about the role reading plays in our screen-focused lives.  Well, in MY screen-focused life.  It's also my first discussion post--I kind of forgot to sign up with Nicole at Feed Your Fiction Addiction, but since the lowest option is 1-12 discussion posts, I think I can handle the commitment   

When people hear I was raised screen free, they sometimes imagine my parents must have been hippies (nope, too old) or super conservative (ha, ha, also nope).  The decision to live without a TV wasn't a political thing from either end of the spectrum.  We were still engaged in the world--we subscribed to both daily newspapers and a few magazines.  My dad was chief of photography at the larger local paper; it's not like we lived in a sheltered bubble.  But we weren't exactly intelligentsia either.  My mom, a nurse, and my great-aunt, a former schoolteacher, were the only family members with college degrees.  My dad read a steady diet of what can charitably called spy smut, and our family game was Crazy 8's, not chess, or even hearts.

The driving force behind my screen-free childhood was my mom and her dislike of wasting time.  She wasn't against fun, although her hobbies tended towards the practical: gardening, sewing, making pottery.  "Vegging out" was not a concept she was familiar with.  We went to the beach, we went hiking, we sat around the table after dinner eating homemade cookies and talking.   But just sitting there and letting a box entertain you--what was the point?  Reading was a little borderline from my mom's point of view--what exactly was I accomplishing with my time?--but as long as I maintained my other activities (school, chores, Camp Fire, piano), she recognized the importance of reading and valued the joy it gave me.
Mom could knit, pet a cat, and wear fabulously 80s glasses, all at once.

Of course she did laundry on camping trips.

I learned to read young, and by five was reading chapter books. I read for fun, I read for escape, I read to understand myself and the world.  I was an occasional latch-key child in late elementary school, and my parents knew that I would empty the dishwasher, then sit with my books until they came home.  I read in the car on long trips.  If I woke up before the rest of the family on a Sunday morning, I read until everyone else got up.  In sixth grade, overwhelmed by the middle school cafeteria and the new regime of the "popular" kids, I read at lunch.  In high school, I read while I sunbathed.  I read the children's encyclopedia my parents bought us, and I read the collection of dirty limericks I found in the basement.  The summer I worked at a dry cleaner's I read most of the day, since dry cleaners are only busy before and after business people's workday.  (The cleaning all happened between 3 am and when I showed up at 7:00).

This series got me through many an awkward middle school lunch.

Sometimes my reading addiction caused problems.  My fourth grade teacher took to patting me down before math lessons to be sure I wasn't sneak reading a book under my desk, and throughout my childhood, my mother would frequently grow exasperated and tell me to go outside and play--"The book will still be there when you get back!"

It was her own fault, of course.  We used to be a normal family.  Then one week in about 1966, when my older sisters were 8 and 10, the TV broke down.  My parents stuck it in the basement until they could take it in to get it fixed.  (That's what people used to do when things broke down--fix them.  Weird, I know.)

In the days before the TV was repaired, however, Mom realized something.  She was no longer having to start all of her sentences with "Turn off the TV and..."  Any modern parent who has struggled with screen time management will appreciate what a shift that must have been for her.  So she decided--we don't need to fix the damn television.  We'll be fine without it.  By the time I was born in 1969, my sisters had stopped asking.  I never knew any different.  As a matter of fact, even after I moved out, I didn't own a TV until I got married at 31.

I don't know if it's possible for a mainstream American to raise their child without screens anymore.  Two of my three sisters kept the TV out of their home when they had kids, but computers are so much more multifunctional; how can you work around the need for them? And then how do you keep your kids off of them?  All the screen time limits and filters in the world won't replace what I had--that the most appealing fall-back option for my time was always to pick up a book.

Obviously, lack of screens isn't necessary to grow a reader, or this community would be tiny and we'd have even fewer bookstores than we do today.  My nieces and nephews, whether they had computers or TVs in their homes, all were readers as kids and continue to be readers as adults.

All I know is that whenever my husband and I find a show to watch together on Netflix, my reading rate drops.  Watching Sherlock or Jessica Jones is fun.  Having a shared experience with my husband, who does NOT read fiction, makes me happy.  When I'm tired at the end of the day, picking up the remote sounds less taxing than turning the pages, and watching sounds easier than reading.  But it's a choice I have to be aware of.  How do I want to spend the little free time I have?  Watching, or reading?  My ability to choose reading is helped enormously by all those years when the choice was made for me.

Next in the series:  The TV shows that made a fan out of this bookworm--and how they stack up to books.  (Get it?  "Stack" up?!?)

Your turn! What was your reading/screens balance as a kid?  How much does the lure of screens detract from your reading focus?  What ingredients are needed to grow a reader?  Do you feel sorry for me for never having seen a single episode of Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, or Starsky & Hutch?  And what was with all those two-names TV shows, anyway?


  1. Oh, Wendy - I always love reading your posts. Somehow you just make me all nostalgic - and it isn't even my life you're talking about! It's hard for most of us to imagine growing up without TV - I know it was a BIG part of my life growing up. We definitely watch TV in my house now, but not a ton - we have some shows we like to watch together (as I'm writing this we're watching Master Chef Junior on Netflix). I LOVE that my kids are big readers - just like I was growing up!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I so appreciate that you read and respond so regularly, especially knowing how much else you do already!

  2. This was fascinating to read! I kind of wish we didn't have cable--it's far too easy to get sucked in. I wonder how different life would be without it; I know it would be difficult for my mom, and probably for my brother. I think life for me would be harder without netflix, and I wonder whether, when I move out, I'll get a subscription (or if I'll continue to use my mom's).

    I wonder how much more productive (or if) I would be without it. I've been tempted to block netflix sometimes, but I know that sometimes I need it to unwind because I need sound, but I'm too tired to keep my eyes open and pay attention. And that, I think, is why it's called the idiot box.

    1. Ha, ha! I wonder about myself sometimes--all those years with no TV, and if I wanted to unwind I read. If I was too tired to read, then obviously it was bedtime. Now, it's like, 'Hm, I'm too tired to read so I think I'll stay up until 2 am watching this show..." And then, shocker, the next night I'm ALSO too tired to read.

  3. Okay, I have to say: the first thing I thought of was that maybe the TV breaking down led to WENDY bwhahahha. So yeah, that is how far in the gutter my mind is. You can blame TV :D

    Okay but in all seriousness, I LOVE this post! Bookmarking now! It's so interesting how these choices (and in the case of the kids, parents' choices) end up playing out in our personalities. I had a few friends who hadn't had TVs either- or had TVs, but only one, and no cable. And I generally looked at them like aliens- don't worry, they looked at me the same way!

    I watched plenty of TV as a kid. I was also a hardcore reader. And I think the same is true today. My kids, while still quite young, DO enjoy TV (especially now that we are trapped inside in the yucky cold winter) but they also love to read, and color, and play and such. So I guess it probably is moderation. And it's probably a lot about the kid's personality too. My parents didn't have any time restrictions about TV, and when my grandparents bought us TVs for our bedrooms when I was about 12 and my brother about 8/9, no one cared. But like you, we were always involved in stuff. I swam all year, competitively, he played basketball and football, and sometimes baseball. So I guess it was just a natural balance.

    Even when the internet became a thing, my parents were pretty chill about it. The only time I got into trouble with it was when I yelled at my dad for getting hit in the head with a 2x4 because I had to take him to the ER instead of chatting with this guy I liked on Instant Messenger ;) But that is a whole other story!!

    1. And it sounds like a good story indeed! I can see with my daughter that she can take screens in as one part of her life, but with my son, it could easily become his entire life if we allowed it. I don't want to demonize screens, and I'm, um, a little more relaxed about how to spend my time than my mom was. But I can't help thinking we all gravitate towards what's easiest.

  4. I haven't owned a TV for the last 10 years, and the 4 years before that it was kept in a small room off the garage. I do still use the computer to stream or watch DVDs a few times a month though.


Please share your thoughts. Comments are almost as sweet as chocolate!