When should we consume culture in small, sequential bits?

I almost always read novels in bits.  That is, I put the book down for a few times before finishing it.

I rarely watch movies in bits.  That just seems wrong.  But, assuming we are watching on DVD, why?  Why do pauses ruin a movie but not a book?  I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. Movies manipulate our neurophysiology over a two-hour time horizon.  If we restart in the middle after a two-day pause, we are not worked up in the right manner.

2. Most books are longer than most movies, but there is otherwise no good reason for the difference in our consumption pattern.

3. We like the idea that we are "reading Camus," and thus we wish to stretch it out.  Few people get comparable status or feel-good values from watching movies and thus there is no need to prolong that experience.

4. We don’t actually like reading enough to keep on paying attention for so many hours in a row.

The ever-wise Natasha notes that we are mostly likely to read action novels — such as The da Vinci Code
— straight through without pause.  But action movies are the easiest to
watch in bits.  Ever try just a half hour of Jackie Chan?  Wonderful.  But breaking up a good drama is criminal.

Your thoughts?


I thought it might be something about the way in which the narratives are experienced, phenomenologically. Movies are experienced audio-visually but novels are experienced imaginatively. But I don't think I could break up a play, and that's audio-visual.

I disagree with number three. I think there's a cannon of films that are (at least seen to be) a notch above the rest and therefore come with some positive feeling associated with viewing them. Schindlers List, for instance.

I also agree with Jason's comment. On top of his points I think that authors design natural stopping points, but every aspect of a movie is designed to provide "flow". Documentaries might be an exception.

Does this have anything to do with the way books and movies are supplied? Books are purchased or borrowed for extended periods while movies have typically been consumed in the theater, on TV (pre TIVO), or rented for a very short period of time.

Yes, it may be length, because rarely does one read short stories in chunks. Or comic books, or articles in the newspaper.

I think (1) explains why it seems "wrong", and I completely agree with it, in that movies often take (or try to, at least) the viewer on an emotional ride.

I think (2) is probably the driving force for why it usually ends up happening, but it is a practical consideration, whereas (1) is a "moral" (artistic?) consideration.

I don't think (4) is the reason why we usually take breaks in reading a book, but when the conditions in (4) are not met (when we are reading a truly capitivating book), we will finish it all in one sitting (I've done this with only one book I can remember, Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, but I also happened to have a good enough block of time in which to read it, so, under different circumstances, (2) could have been a consideration.)

I think another possibility (that applies to me, anyway) is that we read books on the Metro, on airplanes, waiting in airports, waiting at the dentist, etc. whereas when we sit down to watch a movie, we block off our time to do so. So perhaps its a cultural convention to view books (but not movies) as gap-fillers. There are exceptions, but you see many more people reading a book on the bus than watching a movie.

Phil has an interesting point about portability. Now with Video iPods and PSPs, perhaps people *will* see movies in chunks more often. (At least the early adapters with disposable income might.)

Hmm. What with the advent of DVDs, I now often am watching movies in bits and pieces. Chapters ... Nonlinearity ... Extras ... One of the things I adore about DVDs as a delivery medium is that they kind of merge merge certain qualities of books and movies. So I wonder: Do you watch movies all the way through not just because of qualities inherent in the medium (and god knows that drama and movies do tend to shove you through their material more urgently than book authors tend to), but also partly just because you're in the habit of it? I think kids, for instance, having grown up on nonlinear electronic entertainment, might be much more likely to take nearly all their entertainment (movies at home included) in chunks.

Hey, if you'll forgive an auto-link, I wrote about the way magazines are chunking things up these days here. Seems to be something in the air ...

I wonder if our memory for primarily handling verbal discussions and descriptions is just different from our memory for handling scenes we see on TV. I am routinely reading several books at once, in pieces, and I find that it's very easy to slip back into the worldview and understanding of the flow of the books. But I agree that doing that with movies doesn't seem workable....

Hmmm, on the book department I can not agree, because I read f.e. Nietzsche as fast as Jack Vance (meaning that I couldn't stop reading). When it comes to movies or at least TV-Series, I don't know if depth or action is really making a difference. F.e. watching Rome or Deadwood on HBO is as interesting as watching a good documentary, as long as one likes the subject.

I think a reason why action movies can be seen in half-hour breaks, is due to the nature having an action sequence and then a slower part with more dialogue. Since we are still in the momentum of the action, we don't really long for the (mostly boring) slowness of the dialogue. To do a break here, makes perfect sense imo.

I don't think this has been mentioned, perhaps because the readers of this blog are generally smarter
than me =), but one reason I read books in chunks because they are generally more dense and full of
information, while movies are less dense. Thus when watching a movie it is quite easy to absorb most
of it in one sitting, without any gaps, but the breaks in reading a book help me absorb what I have
just read. If I read a book all the way through without stopping, my reading comprehension suffers.
(Unless, as already mentioned, the book is a simple boiler-plate thriller, Da Vinci Code, Tom
Clancy, etc. In that case I often read all the way through without stopping, and I suspect I don't
suffer for it.)

I guess my brain doesn't differentiate between the two -- once I start consuming a story I want to finish it. I almost always read novels cover-to-cover in one sitting unless I am interrupted by something external.

Atlas Shrugged screwed up my sleep schedule for days afterwards...

You can consume lots more detail per minute with a DVD. It's simply a much more efficient process for obtaining the information contained in the book.

Also, I would bet that the chunks of time you spend reading a book are comparable to the chunk of time you are willing to devote to a movie. People probably have a finite attention span that does not relate to the volume of information consumed.

Books encourage you to linger on the words so that you are paying attention not just to the images that are evoked but your own awareness of how you are obtaining and generating those images.

In case you haven't seen this post about DailyLit.com (http://tinyurl.com/kqg9x)...

Here's a fifth hypothesis that I like the best: We read books at our own pace, but we have to watch movies at the movie makers' pace. You can't say, "I'm going to watch this movie slowly, to savor it," because you simply don't have that level of control over the experience. This basic difference gives rise to a lot of what the commenters above observe.

No. 2 = winner. The others might be part of it, but 2 is by far the overriding factor.

Tirta: I'll have to disagree with you there. Clearly you've never done the full 20-hour "24" on DVD marathon. I'm ashamed to say that I have. And by the blase look of the Blockbuster staff when we came back every few hours, we weren't the only ones...

jessica: i've never done it myself, but know others who do. my point is rather a general one, to illustrate that (1) if you hold time constant, reading books is more tiring than watching movies/serials, and (2) watching movies/serials has its limits nevertheless. surely on occassion you'll find yourself marathoning 24 and be absolutely fine the next day, but i think this would be an exception, not the rule -- both within and between individuals.

Television shows are written to be experienced in blocks, with at least 4 commercial breaks in an hour drama. Watching on DVD, it is often easy to tell where the breaks would be and to hit "pause" and go to the bathroom or the kitchen or make a phone call ... Though I find that I want to come back within a fairly short period of time (20 minutes max?).

If you have time, and you like the series, you may well watch several episodes in a row, though. Maybe the season is analagous to a book, and each individual show is a chapter or series of related chapters.

A good bookmark will survive any damage that the book it's marking survives, and indeed a better-than-it-needs-to-be one will survive even if the book itself burns to ash. A minimal degree of forethought, therefore, is sufficient to ensure that one doesn't lose one's place when one puts down a book in anticipation of later picking it up again to resume reading.

With a DVD, on the other hand, while it might theoretically be capable of preserving its frozen position indefinitely, one is far more likely to run afoul of stray infrared light, power surges, wayward cats walking on the remote control, or any of a thousand other ways in which the DVD player can be fooled into losing your place.

This phenomenon is also self-reinforcing, since the widespread knowledge that people don't behave toward DVDs the way they behave toward books leads other persons in one's life to assume that if you've stepped away from the screen for longer than it takes to visit the loo, then you must be finished, and they then act accordingly.

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