I have a long love of television. Growing up in Chicago during the broadcast-only days of channels 2, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 32, I would be up early to watch the test pattern before the day's programming had even begun.
After-school hours were reserved for "The Brady Bunch," "Gilligan's Island" and "CHiPs." There's nothing better to help you decompress from a tough day of dividing fractions and counting to 10 in Spanish than watching a couple of motorcycle cops in jodhpurs pursue a suspect until the suspect's car launches itself off an empty car carrier that for some reason has deployed its ramp in the midst of a busy California highway.
"Magnum P.I.," "The Love Boat," "Dynasty," "Dallas" — for years, it was a bone of contention that my Friday 9 p.m. bedtime meant I couldn't stay up to watch "Fantasy Island." The television of my youth was, inarguably, crappy, but it was good and it was soothing, a cotton-candy narcotic.
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My, how things have changed! We now find ourselves awash in "quality" television: "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Homeland," "Game of Thrones," "Louie," "Downton Abbey" and on and on. These are TV shows to take seriously, TV shows we don't have to feel guilty about watching.
(Not that I ever felt guilt about watching "Diff'rent Strokes" or "The Facts of Life," because why should I?)
There is so much high-quality television that you occasionally hear talk that television has somehow "replaced" the novel. I even heard this sentiment from a former editor of mine who has worked her entire life in publishing, declaring on her blog that she hasn't felt the need to read a novel for the past five years because television is successfully scratching her storytelling itch.
Let me stipulate that I, too, enjoy many of these television shows, that my response to "Breaking Bad" and "The Wire" was something close to obsession. I have the "Mad Men" April 7 season premiere on my calendar. We should note that one of the reasons these shows are of such surpassing quality is because they've adopted many techniques of novelists in their execution: complex, contradictory, non-heroic characters; plot structures that arc over entire seasons, rather than merely episode to episode; and, most significantly, an embrace of ambiguity over tidy resolution. Thanks to Netflix and iTunes and the like, we can even experience these shows like novels, bingeing on entire seasons at a time.
But as great as these shows may be, it ain't the same thing as reading a really good work of prose fiction, because prose fiction is the only virtual-reality technology yet invented. What prose fiction can do that television cannot, and never will, is absorb the reader in such a way that someone else's perception of the world has taken the place of our own.
Have you experienced that post-reading fog, where time has apparently stopped, or not stopped so much as become irrelevant, hours passing like seconds and eons simultaneously? Does television ever cause you to, quite literally, take leave of your senses?
Television has gotten very skilled at storytelling, and in that sense has largely caught up with prose fiction, but fiction will always have an advantage: The book in your hands is the product of a single human consciousness; in reading it, you and that other consciousness are joined.
Things that are broadcast just can't do that.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Canada" by Richard Ford
2. "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich
3. "The Master Butchers Singing Club" by Louise Erdrich
4. "What is the What" by Dave Eggers
5. "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn
— Jim F., Romeoville
I read a fair amount of books, but it's extremely rare that I will have read all of the books on a requester's list, as is the case here. One would think that this makes picking out the right book relatively easy, seeing as Jim and I overlap so strongly. But I've spent an inordinate amount of time wrestling over it, until I finally just have to declare that Jim's recommendation is definitively, probably, hopefully, "Next" by James Hynes.
1. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot
2. "How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z" by Ann Marlowe
3. "Notes from No Man's Land" by Eula Bliss
4. "The Devil's Highway" by Luis Alberto Urrea
5. "The Great Animal Orchestra" by Bernie Krause
— Wendy B.T., Washington, D.C.
For Wendy, I suggest a book of classic essays that we'll be reading generations from now: "The White Album" by Joan Didion.
1. "Dr. Mary's Monkey" by Edward T. Haslam
2. "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed
3. "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter
4. "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn
5. "The Tortilla Curtain" by T.C. Boyle
— Alicia H., Frankfort
Judging from my request inbox, two out of every three readers have read "Gone Girl." I'd be envious, except it's well-deserved attention. Actually, I'm still envious. I have cast my book recommending runes, and they tell me that the right book for Alicia is "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver.
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