Monday, January 17, 2022

Read More Novels

I was lucky to get a whole bunch of great books from my wife for Christmas this year, including the novel The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. Now I might be partial to it considering that a lot of the early parts take place in the corner of Nebraska where I grew up, and a lot of the rest of it takes place in the city where I work (New York), and in between there's life on the road, which is one of my favorite places to be. Even taking away those ingrained advantages, the book completely entranced me. I loved the multiple perspectives, the characters, and how it held me in suspense. Reading the book on the way to and from work on the train became a highlight of my day. Now that I am done with it, I feel an actual loss in my life, a hole in need of filling.

During the week and a half when I was reading the book I tried and failed to watch American prestige television. A really good novel truly CONSUMES me like nothing else, it dominates my thoughts in the day's idle moments. By comparison prestige TV felt far less vital, far less interesting, and far more formulaic. I tended to know which way things were going on the TV when The Lincoln Highway surprised me in every chapter. The characters felt two-dimensional, and I could never truly put myself in their heads. The beats and formulas of prestige television in the US are pretty well established. The thing is, if I want formula I would much rather read a spy novel or watch an old episode of The Rockford Files

Neither of those things pretend to be something that they aren't. They also do far less to waste my time. After an hour of The Rockford Files everything has been nicely resolved. The prestige TV format typically includes episodes that fill time and do little to drive the plot forward or even develop the characters. I have so little time in my day, and hearing someone say "you have to watch the first few episodes before it gets good" is the surest way to never get me to watch something. 

I should also add that this is a problem with American TV in particular. While I was reading the novel my wife and I watched the Swedish show Anxious People on Netflix, and I really enjoyed it. It was only six episodes and the first one left such a strong impact I definitely wanted more. It's also a show about LIFE, a topic one tends to find much more in literature than in American prestige television, which relies on some kind of high concept, even for the good shows. A mob boss who goes to therapy. A serial killer hunting serial killers. A chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin. And so on and so on and so on. Yawn.

Not that I won't pick up a new show to watch. We just started Station Eleven, for example, and I like it a lot. It has even forced me to reckon with the losses of the pandemic in ways I tend to place out of my mind. At the same time, the story is taking forever to unfold and a lot of the beats feel overly familiar. 

There's another thing too: The Discourse. The Discourse has warped viewership of prestige TV to the point that I can't watch anything without feeling like it's been talked to death already. My expectations are too fully formed by the time I put on the first episode. Novel reading is not something beloved by the people participating in The Discourse, thank God. I can read a novel without thinking that reaction to it is taking some kind of side. Even better, it's something I don't talk about online with strangers, it's something I share with my friends. And let me tell you, they are far more fruitful conversations to be had with the latter group.  

So while I am enjoying Station Eleven, what I really want is a new novel, one as good as the last few that I've read. Something to consume me. Goodness knows I need it right now. 

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