Are Books Better Than Movies?

With my publishing company’s latest book coming out next week, I’m supposed to be excited about books. And I am excited about that book. It’s beautifully written, endlessly entertaining, and it will move you in a way that few books can. If you’re in St. Louis and want to attend the debut book signing next Thursday, details are here.

Despite that, sometimes I wonder about the point of books.

I say this as a reader, writer, blogger, and publisher. I love books, particularly novels. But there are two things that worry me about the present and future of the medium:

  1. The alternative is easier, and sometimes better. The truth of the matter is that a picture is worth a thousand words. I can spend pages upon pages describing a character, or I can show you a photo of the character and save you the time (more on this later when I contradict myself). I experience this even more often when the picture is moving. Think about all the details packed into an episode of 30 Rock or Community. There are layers upon layers of visual and verbal details in every scene. It’s clearly better than if you had to sit on your couch and read through the script every Thursday night. Even video games have these amazingly detailed narratives now that fully immerse you in new worlds.
  2. There are so many forms of live media that are cooler than books. Think about the last concert you went to. Now think about the last book reading you went to. Which was cooler? I thought so.
  3. There are so. Many. Books. Guess how many books are published each year? About 300,000. Personally, I probably add about 50 books to my must-read wishlist every year, and I end up reading about 20 of them. I can never catch up. It’s daunting as a writer to attempt to enter the fray, and it’s even daunting as a friend–how can I possibly recommend a book to someone else when they literally have millions of other books to choose from? Why is the one I recommend any better than the others?

If Biddy believes in reading, so can I.

So yeah, I was wondering about the whole point of books for a while. And then I attended a book reading at Meshuggah on the Loop, and something interesting happened.

A woman was reading from her novel in front of the crowd (a “crowd” at a coffee shop book reading is about 15 people). She didn’t introduce the book or give us context–she just jumped in and started reading about a married guy going to a strip club.

The scene was dripping with tension and sexuality. The author had a real way with words, completely transporting you to this strip club where this man waited in anticipation for his favorite dancer to take the stage wearing nothing more than a leather g-string.

I’ll admit it–I was a little turned on.

Then the author called the stripper by name for the first time: Steve.

I think every heterosexual man in the coffee shop felt very, very uncomfortable after that.

And it wasn’t because we were listening to a scene in a male strip club. It was because we all assumed that the stripper was a woman, and that image provoked a hormonal reaction in us. Then the world was turned upside down. It’s kind of like the blog entry I wrote about admiring a female jogger’s slender legs until you realize it’s a dude. It’s confusing for a second.

The point is, no movie could do what the author did in that scene. When it comes to unraveling information, books are unparalleled.

George R. R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones, reminded me of another reason why books are more powerful than movies: When you write a book, the budget for each scene is unlimited. Martin used to write for TV, but he got frustrated with the limited budgets, so he turned to books. No more constraints. If he wanted a giant battle, he got one without haggling with his producers. Easy.

Ever since those two revelations, I’ve rekindled my appreciation and hope for books. Here are a few quick reasons:

  1. Imagination. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words as I said above, but the pictures you paint in your mind are even more valuable.
  2. Backstory. In a movie, you often have to take a break from the plot to get backstory about a character. In a book, it’s much easier to present backstory in a manner that lets the story continue to move forward.
  3. Reveals. As I mentioned above, the author is in full control of the information shared with the reader, providing a myriad of twists and turns.
  4. Escapism. Sure, a book might take 10 hours to read…but that’s a good thing. How many times have you read a book and thought, “I wish this would never end!” Books let you escape from real life one chapter at a time, at your own pace. You don’t have to wait a week for the next episode of Fringe to come out–just turn the page when you’re ready.

Last, I mentioned the problem of quantity. Really, though, that’s not a problem with books alone. There are so many movies, TV shows, games, and songs out there, and you can get any of them within a few minutes. Supply is diluted, and it will forever be diluted. That’s okay. It just means that finding good recommendation engines (whether they’re digital or human) is more important than ever before.

What’s the last truly great book that you read?