Sunday, April 21, 2013

Did TV ruin books?

I'm reading a non-fiction book right now and I'm not sure where it's headed.  I thought back to a few recent books I've read - some I abandoned and some I wanted to abandon but saw it through and then wished I'd not spent the time.  And then it dawned on me... the ones I keep reading have a strong opening where something major happens and then the story typically solves it.  That is, there's a case or a crime or a mystery or something.  Or, if it's a YA book, then there's a genesis or a discovery or an event that changes the course of a character and then we're along for the ride.

But it's these other ones, where the story just unfolds and you don't really know why, or you don't know if there's going to be a strong point... they end up leaving me flat.

And I realized that's a result of the 60-minute drama - these books that solve a mystery or a crime -- or even use supernatural as an allegory for self-discovery or empowerment - they follow a formula I'm comfortable with.  (Do both, like Buffy did, and, well, that's just clever.)

And therein lies the problem... or does it?  So you take a book like Last Night in Twisted River (my review) by John Irving (Cedar House Rules guy... didn't read CHR or see the movie, looked boring), a book I did not care for.  It had the promise of a mystery even in its title, but it didn't satisfy or fulfill.  It meandered.

Is that a bad thing?  Or, is my expectation of resolution a bad thing?  Do I lack an appreciation for a simpler story-telling?  Have I allowed television to make my color my impact?

I don't think so.  I thought about this a lot yesterday but I realized... a movie or a book has to end at some point.  A movie, you might have some idea of the end (I was quite surprised when the Borne Redundancy ended, felt really abrupt) but a book, it's quite clear you're approaching the end.  You're not going to get to the last page and find out the last two chapters are online or something.  So you already have a sense that the thing is encapsulated, so you come to expect a story arc - something happens at the beginning that is interesting enough for you to focus in on.  Things happen, and by the end, whatever problem, whatever suspense, whatever puzzle, you understand.  Along the way, you invest in the characters, cheering some, jeering others, there's suspense, humor, highs, lows, but it all has a point.  Meandering doesn't have a point, especially when there is a fixed end.

And I realized that in some way, our own lives meander.  At certain points, in retrospect, we can look back and see a chapter, or see a period that could be encapsulated.  But none of us know when the end is coming.  So a book or TV show or movie serves to temporarily lift you from your own life and transport you to another life, another world, another place, another time, where something of significance happened, something that caused you to turn your head and start observing something as it unfolded, curious about how it would all end.  And then at some point, it does end and you return to your life.  A really, really good book makes you miss the characters (the friends?) you shared time with and you yearn for more.  That even happens occasionally in non-fiction books for me.

But they have to have a point, because I know I'm only sharing time with them for a brief moment, so I want it to mean something.

So, did TV ruin books for me?  No, I don't think so.  It's just helped me to better understand what I'm looking for in a book, since they take longer to read than a TV show or a movie.

Which makes me wonder about the book I'm reading now.   So a guy did find a skull (or head?) in a bucket of water he drew from a well in the prologue, and now we've gone back in time to a story that might or might not be meandering.  But the prologues piqued my interest.  Even if it is the overused plot device of "60 years ago" that has plagued so many shows these days (ahem, Hawaii Five-O).

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