Both online and offline, people have endless arguments about which version of a best seller is better – the movie or the book? (In truth, you’ll probably prefer the one you saw first!) But in general terms, what’s better – reading or watching TV? Some say books are elitist and ableist.
Others call them dissociative. Today, we’ll take a closer look at these two forms of media, pitting them against each other in an objective way. To keep things fair, we’ll review various criteria and create a score sheet. Then at the end, we can determine the winner between TV and reading.
Reading vs Watching TV
Round #1: Content
People love to say reading is better than watching TV, but it really depends on what you’re watching or reading. Is it a comic book or a literary novel? An action flick or a cartoon? A documentary or a music video? Both books and TV shows can be educational, and they can also both be low-brow. Think Playboy vs Good Housekeeping, or Investigation Discovery vs Survivor.
If you’re consuming the same content in TV or book form, they might both be equally intense, or comparably vapid. And many products come as both books and movies or TV shows. Think of National Geographic, Game of Thrones, Bridgerton, or Divergent. For this round, we’ll call it a draw since it’s down to personal preference. Neither medium is objectively superior or sub-par.
Round #2: Culture
The characters in books and movies or TV shows can all teach us something about their families, values, communities, and mores. It doesn’t have to be The Crown or Real Housewives. Even sitcoms can weave in aspects of culture into their storylines. But movies have the advantage of subtitles, so you can more easily learn about nationalities that are different from your own.
True, books can be translated into various languages, but a foreign film with subtitles can pack way more cultural context than a book can. It could take you a week to read a book about the Whalers of Lembata, but you could watch a documentary about rice farmers in Jakarta within two hours. Plus, you’ll hear their accents and pronunciations. So here, TV wins over books.
Round #3: Effort
The main reason people say reading is better is that it uses more brainpower. You have to read the words, pause to absorb them, and build mental images to visualize the story. Even with a comic book, you still have to look at the dialogue then look at the drawings, which uses two different parts of your brain. And no, it’s not the same thing as swiftly scanning subtitles!
With TV, you can just sit back and let the story wash over you. You can doze off at certain scenes and wake up a few minutes or hours later. And even with that time gap, you can easily follow the story. Or you could rewind to the spot where you fell asleep and watch it all again. It requires almost zero energy or effort on your part. So when you’re mentally exhausted, TV is better.
Round #4: Vocabulary
These days, book writers don’t make a lot of money, for a variety of reasons. Most people pirate the books they read, so sales aren’t as high. And we generally have a shorter attention span, so fewer people will sit down long enough to finish an entire book. Even the readers among us are more likely to read a blog post, and these often come with audio options as an alternative to text.
That said, a book, article, or essay is likely to use more complex words than a TV show or movie. Screenwriters and directors know people want an easy viewing experience. And modern TV uses the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle so there’s less dialogue to begin with. So if you’re looking to learn new words and enhance your language skills, reading a book is far better than watching TV.
Round #5: Socialising
Reading is a pretty solitary activity. Sure, you can sit together in the library and read next to each other. You could even share a book. But each of you is reading alone, building separate images in your mind. You might both read about a big, hairy man, but one of you might see a punk rocker in their minds while the other may imagine a Yeti! It’s extremely individualized.
On the other hand, you can watch TV as a group. Even if you don’t talk or discuss the movie, you’re seeing and hearing the same thing. Your reactions and responses may differ, but the output is the same. So while introverts may prefer to read a book, a TV show or movie is a better date idea, even if you’re just hanging out with friends. It’s a low-stakes group bonding activity.
Round #6: Relaxation
For most of us, the first thing we do when we wake up (and the last thing before bed) is to look at our smartphones. Outside of that, lots of us have TVs in our bedrooms or doze off on the couch while watching Netflix. But while these habits are deeply-ingrained, all these devices emit blue light. And blue light keeps the brain alert and increases the chance of chronic insomnia.
Doctors say it’s a better idea to read a book before bed. The physical action of moving your eyes across the page is far more relaxing. And if it’s a paper book (rather than a digital one), there’s no blue light to rattle your brain awake. Here’s the thing though – read on paper or an e-Ink device with good contrast and no backlights. Reading on a phone or tablet is still blue light!
Round #7: Learning Levels
Let’s imagine you’re learning a new skill. Maybe you’re trying to assemble IKEA furniture or knit a scarf. You can read the instructions in a booklet, or you could pull up a YouTube tutorial or a recorded demo. In this case, there’s no objective variation between reading vs watching TV. It just comes down to your preferred method of absorbing information. The context matters too.
If you’re a textual learner, you may prefer to make mental images of the directions. Building your own ‘brain pictures’ could make it easier for the data to sink in. Especially if the book is illustrated. But if you’re a visual learner, you’ll benefit more from seeing exactly how to do the task. Plus you can pause and compare your results against the screen. So we’ll call this a draw.
Round #8: Mental Stimulation
When you see someone wearing glasses, you don’t think, ‘Oh no, their eyes are broken!’ Instead you think, ‘Wow, they must be really smart!’ And this stereotype makes people think reading is more intelligent than watching TV. On one hand, reading a book is more mentally stimulating and uses more parts of your brain. On the other hand, it’s way easier to remember what’s on TV.
TV shows use lighting, ambient music, condensed storytelling, and clothing to sear ideas into your mind. A single 1-second frame can have the same volume of information as multiple paragraphs. Neither form of media is more intellectual. But while it takes more brain activity to read a book, a lot more TV content will stay in your memory. So we’ll call this one a draw as well.
Round #9: Accessibility
In the past, you had to be literate to understand a book. So you’d need at least basic levels of reading, writing, or comprehension. If you were visually impaired and had no braille books, or if you lived in a place without libraries, you might never be exposed to the written word. But even if you didn’t have electricity, you could watch TV at someone’s house, a local shop, or the office.
These days, lots of us have internet access on our phones, even in remote rural villages. And if you can’t read or write, you can listen to the audio version of a book. Then we have apps like YouTube or TikTok that show everyone snippets of the top moves and TV shows. So in terms of accessibility, it’s just as easy to find and read a book as it is to watch a popular TV show. Draw!
Round #10: Economic Impact
Overall, TV shows and movies put more cash into the economy than books do. You have to pay the scriptwriters and videographers, but also the extras, film crew, stylists, location staff, and the film licenses. That doesn’t even count the distributors, TV makers, and transporters. But a book only pays the publisher and tosses a few dollars at the writer. TV is better for the economy.
That said, almost every movie and TV show today is spun off from a book. This model is so well-proven that many new authors write stories for the screen. Yes, it’s a book or a blog, but they write it with the end goal of having it made into a movie. And it works! Even J.K. Rowling made more money from the Harry Potter franchises than the books, and those books made bank!
Round #11: Physical Strain
This may seem like a surprising factor, but we can already tell you it’s a draw. Think of examples of long-form storytelling that have movies, books, and TV shows. Divergent, Shadow Hunters, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Bridgerton, Malory Towers … These are all franchises with multiple books, movies, and TV shows each. That’s several hours in total.
So if you were to binge every movie and episode, you’d be on the sofa for weeks. And if you were to read all the books, you’d be sitting or lying in the same position for weeks. Both scenarios can cause headaches from the eye strain, muscle pain from sedentary sitting, and brain fatigue from all that concentration. So in all these cases, completing the series is an equally strenuous task.
All said, would you rather read a book or wait for the TV version? Tell us in the comments!