The thing about reading, for me, is that it’s easy. The fucked-up thing about what our culture has made of reading is that I cannot write that without a faint overtone of, “Oh, I love curling up with the Russians,” drifting gently off the page (which is why sometimes I tell people that I watched television all weekend even when I didn’t, trying to get across the essential truth that I was mostly staring off into space without sounding like a serial killer). But in fact, part of why reading is easy for me is that I do not expect artistic significance from my reading. Reading for me is cereal boxes, the gossip pages, people’s dumb tweets that I look at to make myself feel better while knowing they’ll make me feel worse. Reading is books with dragons on the cover, which are my favorite and which, I would like to note, vary wildly in quality. Reading is the beautifully written recaps of television shows I will never actually watch, a Lambs’ Tales From Shakespeare for our age. Some of these, of course, are artistically significant, and then they are less easy, because for me serious works of art are hard and effortful to consume in whatever medium I encounter them, whether or not they have dragons on the cover.
But even that hardest version of reading, even, say, reading Anna Karenina, a thing which I have never successfully done, feels less daunting to me than watching the televised equivalent. After all, watching a television program requires fully giving yourself over to somebody else’s vision, somebody else’s pace, requires tracking a million different visual and auditory details and making space for all of them in your head. You can fast-forward a television program, but it’s hard and often involves missing critical plot points, as opposed to my at-this-point-totally-unconscious habit of skipping all forms of landscape description in a novel. In other words, when I watch television for real—not as something that somebody else is watching while I am reading things on my phone—I experience it as an artwork, in full and as the creator intended; I am forced to respect it.
I’m not saying the haphazard way I read is good even if it does make 19th-century novels go faster. Also I’m not ashamed of it. Reading is my desert-island entertainment, the thing I do when I’m too exhausted to do anything else, when I’m too exhausted to engage with the people I love, and so I treat it casually and disrespectfully—it is the ghost in the machine and it is there to make me feel better.
If I had grown up watching television I might have a similar casual intimacy with the medium, but I did not — I did not live in a house with a television until I was 11 — and so it makes me tense, especially in its current form. There was a time period when I watched a ton of television, but that was before streaming, when you did not have to actively choose your fate for the next six-to-14 hours, but instead could flip blithely from channel to channel without any investment at all in what was handed to you. That felt more like what I thought of as entertainment; it didn’t feel exigent in the way watching television does now. In the year 1999 I paid $300 a month for my apartment in small-town Colorado, and I got paid $350 a week by my job, and included in my rent was a television and free cable, and on CMT, I could watch Toby Keith without knowing that he was about to go full warmonger, while on A&E I could watch the entire run of Northern Exposure. It was one of the greatest times of my life and then, before I knew it, that era was over.
Around 15 years ago it seemed like every party I went to had its guy ready to declare, unprovoked, that he didn’t really watch TV. It’s maybe not super-fair to use a personal fact volunteered in a gathering of friendly acquaintances as proxy for embrace of outdated and middlebrow hierarchies of media consumption, but that’s how social judgment works, and being that guy at those particular parties meant being the era’s dialed-down equivalent of the guy on Twitter who yells at people to put down the Hot 100 and for god’s sake start listening to podcasts. Meaning he got shit-talked.
But even among the shit-talking, somebody could usually be heard saying how it was, in fact, great to do fun things outside, and then somebody else would launch into an elaborate defense of one particularly beloved television program. People were weird about television then, still, even though prestige TV was already a thing. I don’t remember what I said in those conversations; I kind of hope that I didn’t say anything. Since I didn’t then own a television and was not really the kind of advanced that would have me streaming shit on my computer, the options were that I allied myself with that guy (gross) or that I was the kind of asshole who made fun of him for being forthright about something that was also true of me (grosser; more plausible).
It is hard for me to watch TV. I own a television now, a large and magnificent television, about which my only regret is that it is not larger and more magnificent still, and I am drafting this particular paragraph the morning after staying up impossibly late to watch cars go zoom on my large and magnificent television. It would for sure be a lie to say I don’t watch TV. But getting me to watch television, especially scripted television, requires strategies most familiar from articles about getting your 12-year-old to read. A thing I am watching has to be narrowly tailored to my interests; it is better if it is something short; it is better if it is non-fiction; it is better if it is funny. I will only watch television at certain times; I will often abandon a show midway through and never pick it up again; it goes better if I am given snacks and blankets and praised for watching. When I watch TV with my loved ones, it is understood that I am doing them a favor; this is true whatever signs of enjoyment I display.
I blame this on the fact that I grew up without a TV. In my youth, that was an immediate and precise socioeconomic marker; classmates’ parents, learning this, would adopt an attitude of regretful respect. “That’s wonderful,” they would say, and they would look at their own children assessingly. (This, of course, being a socioeconomic marker of its own.) Telling people now, by contrast, feels more like I imagine going around saying that you grew up with a bidet would — it’s obviously a little unusual, and the fact that you keep saying it suggests that you think it’s meaningful, but any actual significance is unclear.
The truth is that growing up without a television was always two experiences, one internal and the other external. When people say about my television-less childhood, “Oh, that must have sucked,” or “Oh, that must have been weird,” they are mostly talking about the internal part, about the hours I was forced to fill with things that were not watching television, but that part was fine. It was the same as anything else. I was a kid, I kept busy. I was weird, but kids are weird. I did read a lot of books, which is what those assessing parents had in mind when they talked about how wonderful it all was, but also, like, I read the Los Angeles Times classified car ads cover to cover. This did not teach me anything. I had a million building blocks and a million Barbies and a very beautiful toy pirate ship. I had a fine time.
The external part, which was challenging, is that I was cut off from approximately 60 percent of conversations on the playground. Even those conversations that weren’t just a choral recap of the funniest bits of the previous night’s Simpsons episode were deeply informed by what the kids around me had seen on TV, and I had no way in; I was missing a whole vocabulary. All of a sudden everyone was saying, “Cowabunga” all the time. My parents divorced when I was 12 and both of them got televisions, but by then it was too late for me. I did sort of develop a way of navigating the missed cultural references (a friend who knew me as a child and then after a gap of decades as an adult told me “you’ve mainstreamed yourself”), but I never developed any real facility with television.
This feels like a loss. Not because I have time-killing needs—I’ve got that handled—and not because there’s a shortage of art waiting out there in the world to grip me, but because the kind of absolute surrender television demands to someone else’s version of a story seems like one possible thing great art can and should teach, and also like something that, once taught, can allow for a different form of engagement with the world outside the artwork. I imagine a more patient version of myself, one who doesn’t imaginatively interpolate the details in other people’s stories, but who instead pays a disciplined and sustained attention to what is unspooling in front of them. Maybe more television in my youth wouldn’t have given me that capacity, but maybe it would have.
The problem with any essay about how you grew up differently than everyone else is it involves a series of assumptions about other people that are wrong or insulting or both. I grew up weird, and I grew up without television, and if those facts are not unrelated, they are also not a single circle on the Venn diagram. I like to imagine that growing up without a television somehow exempts me from the knee-jerk reactions about television and modes of media consumption that the rest of you are stuck with, but that’s almost certainly self-delusion. What I will say is that when I was a senior in high school in the mid-1990s, I and my step-siblings got taken to New York City, and in the Museum of Television and Radio we were led to a room in which the entire past history of the medium was available for our viewing. There I watched Bill Walton and Julius Erving square off in the NBA playoffs. I had seen basketball games on television before, and I had read a lot of Terry Pluto, but I hadn’t known that the past was retrievable like that, and I felt, honestly, like Julia Roberts taken to the opera in Pretty Woman. It was just so beautiful, and that may have been because I really, fully appreciated the thing in front of me, or it may have been the sensation of giving myself over to a culturally important experience. I don’t remember who I rooted for; I just remember my hands tucked under my thighs, hoping.