by Hugh Gilmore
American culture has shifted again in the past 10 years and I feel like blaming it on Netflix, and, before that, on Pauline Kael.
Our culture – and I’m talking about the “educated classes” (former readers, art film viewers, theatergoers and museum attenders) – now come to the dinner table and talk about nothing other than Nextflix, Amazon Prime, and “What’s playing at the Ambler.” Rarely does anyone mention a book they’ve read. Perhaps that’s because the chances of chowing down with someone who’s read that same book you have are pretty small. Our shared mental culture is a mirror dropped down the stairwell and fragmented into a thousand different reflections. To talk about a book nowadays is to foist a monologue upon your companions.
I wonder, I really do, if it’s now become a law almost as binding as Muslim salat that we must spend every evening trying to pick which robot-written Netflix show to watch. Please do not point out to me the rare occasional movie that is superb. For every wonderful, thoughtful, moving film offered, there’s 99 others that are merely imitative, meringue-like “entertainment.”
People will say, “What’s wrong with entertainment? I worked all day. I just want to chill.”
I say, “Nothing.”
Not this once. Or once in a while. But this stuff is created by evil geniuses who know how to debride any thought frags from our brains. They would leave us content to coast through life, remote control in hand, watching violence or idiocy with a coprophagous grin on our face. TV ( yes, I’m calling Netflix TV) exists to sell ads promoting companies that want to make money. (In Netflix’ case, to sell subscriptions to themselves.) These coyotes know how to magnetize us to the sofa.
Entertainment is fine, but not a suitable life goal. “Entertainment” should be the occasional chocolate cheery cordial, not the daily meal. It’s the current generation’s turn to read Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” (1985). Postman argued there that Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” predicted a society controlled by their addiction to amusement. Not unlike the United States of today. Let’s face it: Television, including Netflix, is a disgrace to human dignity and potential.
Time to testify, brothers and sisters: I started this column 12 years ago by declaring that I’d be trying to read 100 books that year (2007). I invited any readers I found to join me in the quest to save my mind. Along the way I vowed to identify and point out the obstacles that got in my way as I tried to read my quota of books. I called them “The Enemies of Reading.”
Regular television was the big one back then. Along with newly invented VHS movies rented from a store to which one had to drive. (Remember TLA Video at the bottom of the Hill? Or Chestnut Hill Video in the middle of the Upper Avenue?) Soon those stores offered a choice of VHS or DVD. And before you could blow out only a few birthday candles, they were out of business because Netflix offered little red mailing envelopes. If you were on or a three or four movies rental plan, you could have at least one arrive in the mail daily. Daily rented movie-watching soon threatened the TV networks’ ratings.
And then, ta da! Along came the streaming movie via subscription. For a while Netflix, bless ’em, seemed to have for rent at least one copy of every movie ever made. Soon, though, only the frontrunners, mostly recent ones, became the focus and they were offered as “streaming” movies.” We were no longer offered a great long-tailed list of movies ready for immediate consumption. Instead of holding out, canceling our subscriptions or simply waiting two days for the movie in the mail, we chose instead to go for immediate gratification.
In my case, I began choosing the least bad of the offered movies, just for the sake of watching something. For the purpose of chilling, or winding down, I wasted a lot of hours watching blah movies, simply from habit. It was the easiest choice when I thought about how to spend the time between supper and sleep. I’d forgotten, really, how to not watch TV. I’m guessing I watched at least 200 movies last year. But … oh … wait a minute, I forgot: It was because I’m a film buff, doing research. Ha! What a lie.
In that situation, believe me, it is very hard to reach up and point that remote control and depress the off button. The ensuing silence swoops to envelope you. What to do now? You’re suddenly sitting in the silent, waterless fishbowl you call home.
Oh well, there’s always reading. But read what? That’s actually hard to decide. And when you do pick something up and try it, the skills involved seem lost to you, like the children’s memories of their addresses in William Goldings “Lord of the Flies” (1954) near the end. Reading takes practice before it becomes easy again.
Here’s a helpful mantra: Don’t turn on the television unless you know exactly what you’re going to watch. And turn it off after you’ve seen that.
I’m taking up the 100-book challenge again this year. That means I must average about two books a week. I invite you to join me. Let me know how you’re doing. If you write, I’ll include your remarks in this column (with your permission) as we go along.
Hugh Gilmore lives and reads in Chestnut Hill. He is the author of a half-dozen books that can be found on Amazon. This year marks his 13th year writing his “Enemies of Reading” column for the Local.