In the 1950’s, the world saw the rise of a new technology: the television. Families would sit in their living rooms and watch a small screen project images in a way that had never been seen before. Presidential speeches, cartoons, soap operas, and the like, flashed across a black and white screen at a super fast rate. People had a new means to be entertained. Many welcomed the television, believing that communication would be much more efficient; The mainstream media would be able to broadcast important events and discourses much quicker through the television instead of waiting for days to travel large acres of land to communicate messages. There were others, however, who feared that the television would spell the intellectual, creative, and moral death of thousands. These people turned to a past means of entertainment to support their arguments, namely, books. Those who were suspicious of the television argued that books surpassed the tube in fostering neccesary mental juices. Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1988) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1951) both argue that books surpass television in that they promote more constructive entertainment.
Roald Dahl’s famous character, Matilda, is a small young girl with an extremely acute intelligence. At the age of three, she is already reading everything in her parents house. Ironically though, her parents don’t support her interest in books; they would prefer that she immerse herself in television instead. Matilda’s teacher, Ms. Honey, thinks otherwise. She believes Matilda to be one of the brightest girls she’s ever taught, one with a promising future ahead of her. She attempts to tell Matilda’s parents about their daughter’s abilities, but the Wormwoods won’t listen; they’re too engrossed with the television to pay attention to Ms. Honey’s remarks. Frustrated, Ms. Honey says “‘Mr. Wormwood, if you think that some rotten TV programme is more important than your daughter’s future, then you ought not to be a parent! Why don’t you switch that darn thing off and listen to me?'” (Dahl 94). Dahl’s criticism of television is quite specific; it is a destructive medium that teaches parents to not care for their children’s upbringing. Television distracts parents from their priorities due to its constant flashes and images. If they are continuously immersed by what they see, then they will lose their focus on those around them, including their loved ones. Their children will have no one to raise them properly since no one is even willing to pay attention to their lives. In his lifetime, Dahl even published a poem entitled “Television,” in which he admonishes parents to turn off the screen and give their children books to read instead. Television, for Dahl, can only lead to disaster, severing kids from both parental guidance and creativity.
And thus, books are Dahl’s counter argument; they can serve as a more constructive medium for parents to raise their children. Books can teach kids about the world around them, giving them a broader view of life that the limited scope of the television cannot touch. On page 21, Dahl describes Matilda’s reading: “The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.” Books serve as a way for readers to be better educated about people and places that have a bearing on the world. They aren’t just modes of entertainment; they actually instruct people concerning important facts about their planet. In this way, they are educational, and for Dahl, there is no better way for parents to educate their kids than by fostering strong reading habits. Bonding occurs when a parent reads something as simple as a bedtime story to their child. Unlike the television, books present enduring lessons about life. The television can only give fleeting entertainment that doesn’t leave its watchers any smarter after having watched it. Matilda grows in her super human intelligence, not by doing nothing but watching a screen, but by taking the time to read.
Like Dahl, Ray Bradbury, in his novel Fahrenheit 451, argues that books have a certain quality that television does not. Guy Montag, a fireman who burns books for a living, begins to question the meaning of his life after talking to a friendly girl named Clarisse. He begins to rebel against the status quo of his society by reading old, forbidden books. Along the way, he meets a former English teacher, Faber. Faber discusses several different reasons to Montag about why books are important. One of them is that books give authentic information, whereas television presents misleading ideas: “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moons, faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless” (Bradbury 79). Bradbury argues that books show fresh and realistic details about life, things that not only delight the senses but that can also put people out of their complacency. They reveal truths that force people to own up to reality. Television, on the other hand, misrepresents life by constantly showing its viewers fabrications of real life. It falls short, in its flashy presentation of things, to give viewers depth and details. As a case in point, one of the most popular arguments against the mainstream media throughout history is that newscasters give distorted “facts” based more on misplaced emotions and political agendas than on actual facts. Immersed in T.V., people lose sight of things going on around them in the real world just like Matilda’s parents. These visual distortions make humans “comfortable” by not allowing them to learn about life up close but, instead, from a seemingly safe distance. It gives them the illusion that they are learning when they really are not.
Indeed, Bradbury points out that television will not even allow the recipient time to think for themselves as to what it is showing them. Faber says to Montag, “You can shut them [books], say ‘Hold on a moment.’ You play God to it. But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlor?” (Bradbury 80). Faber’s point is that readers can take a simple break from books, one that allows them to think about what they have just read. The breather gives them the liberty to debate or agree with what they have learned. They have time to process the information. But with television fans it is different; because commercials and news feeds come at such a fast pace in a short amount of time, the viewer does not even have time to think about what they have seen. It is as if the television is trying to hammer things into their heads without giving them to the chance to think otherwise. It attempts to cram as much “information” down their throats as possible. Books at least present a possible view of the world and not one that must be true just because it says so.
Unless the author has an ego.
But are television sets really as detrimental to people’s lives as Dahl and Bradbury believe? The debate continues to this day. It can be argued that television has come up with its own memorable stories just as effective (even more so) than the selections in a Barnes and Noble book rack. With the popular increase in kindle, youtube, and internet use, it seems that society at large has rejected Dahl and Bradbury’s fears. The screen reveals more to the public at home and abroad in ways that many may not have conceived of in the 1950’s. The world is embracing new modes of communication than ever before. Maybe all this emphasis on books is a prudish, stuck-up moralism only fit for intellectual literary snobs. On the other hand, illiteracy is still rampant in parts of the world. People seem to not possess the basic skills of reading and rhetoric. Is it because their eyes are glued to a screen too often? Maybe there can be a safe balance between books and TV. For Dahl and Bradbury, though, books, those old portals to the world and the soul, will forever trump those rushing images. In a world ruled by technology, those paperback and hardback spines still have much to say yet.
Works Cited: Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1951. Print. Dahl, Roald. Matilda. New York: Puffin Books, 1988. Print.