Thick Books & Atheist TV

As I prepare for a long weekend excursion where I won’t physically go anywhere but will mentally go everywhere, this assessment of my travel companions strikes me as fundamentally correct:

[Books] are the only medium for thick descriptions of the world that human beings possess. By “thick” description, I mean an extended, detailed, evidence-based, written interpretation of a subject. If you want to write a feature, or blog, or wikipedia entry, be it about the origins of the first world war; the authoritarian turn in Russia; or the causes and effects of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end you will have to refer to a book. Or at least refer to other people who have referred to books. Even the best magazine pieces and TV documentaries – and the best of these are very good indeed  –  are only puddle-deep compared with the thick descriptions laid out in books. They are “thin” descriptions and the creators and authors of them will have referred extensively to books to produce their work. Books are a different class of object, profoundly unlike magazines, newspapers, blogs, games or social media sites. The world they evoke is richer, more dense and, literally, more meaningful.

This probably explains why I don’t do TV, dumb-phones, texts, social media, tablets, apps, news, streaming, and all that connected-cacophonous tech jazz. These so pale in comparison to deep immersion in thick books that I’ve come to see all of them as irritants and annoyances.

The irony of this assessment is that the author, Toby Mundy, is writing about tech-futurist predictions that books are doomed and Amazon is trying to kill the book business. As I read this, I was looking at a large stack of (mostly used) books that would have been hard or impossible to find and overly expensive to buy before Amazon. The book world has never been better for Luddites.

The television world, for its part, has long been doomed. I’m not sure if things are going to get better or worse with the new “Atheist TV” channel reported in the New York Times. The impetus for the new channel is reasonable disgust over what passes for “science” and “history” on channels ostensibly devoted to these subjects:

“The TV networks kowtow to the liars who make money off of misinformation,” the president of American Atheists said, singling out for special contempt outlets that mix silly supernatural gunk with more serious science and nature shows. “The Discovery Channel treats ghosts like they’re real,” he said, adding later, “Bigfoot, psychics, aliens, ghosts, spirits, gods, devils — all bunk, all pushed by the so-called truthful and scientific stations in an effort to placate the waning religion segment at the expense of the growing segment of atheists who should be, but are not, their target audience.”

It would indeed be nice to have a channel that airs actual science, history,  anthropology, psychology, etc., and which interrogates “religion” through the lenses of evolution and cognitive science. But I seriously doubt, based on the following description, that we will get anything along these lines: “At first, Atheist TV will be limited, offering interviews with leading atheists, film from atheist conventions and other content from the Richard Dawkins Foundation and like-minded organizations.” How dreadful. It sounds like the New Atheist equivalent of digital chloroform and just another reason not to watch TV. Books will have to do.


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6 thoughts on “Thick Books & Atheist TV

  1. Larry Stout

    At some time during the ’60s, former FCC chairman Newton Minnow gained fame by describing television programming as “a vast wasteland”. Asked for his updated opinion in retirement many years later, he wryly called it “a half-vast wasteland”.

    Extraterrestrial aliens are still lent credence in sensational TV “documentaries”. Once a man suggested to me that El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza, for example, couldn’t have been built by humans, and he then asked whether I believed it was built by aliens. I answered in the affirmative, reminding him that Mexicans, in our American perspective, are aliens.

    Though I read widely in “thick” books, I nevertheless enjoy and learn from the relatively few television programs produced with the oversight and input of credible archaeologists, biologists, and other legitimate scientific people. And, as we all know, a bound book per se is nothing sacred: public-library shelves offer proportionately as much claptrap as TV or the Web. The fact is, a great deal of claptrap in books is still held up as iconic and sacrosanct by “scholars” who enjoy exalted academic careers based mostly on vacant and neverending appeals to “authority”. I’m not referring now to you, Cris, but a great many university profs are as phoney as a $3 bill.

    I had to smile when I read your long phrase “dumb-phones, texts, social media, tablets, apps, news, streaming, and all that connected-cacophonous tech jazz”, to all of which I am equally averse. Of course, I never had a CB radio, either. “Breaker, breaker, Rubber Ducky.” “WTF, JFC, LOL.”

  2. Gyrus

    Generally agreed. One exception – not the only one, but the first that springs to mind – is the documentaries of Adam Curtis, made for the BBC. They’re smart but also creative in a way that takes advantage of the medium. They do things you couldn’t really do in books. There are some books doing something similar – a kind of intelligent poetry of ideas. Taussig’s wonderful What Color is the Sacred? comes to mind. But there are things that the moving image can do better. If it’s not doing that – and it rarely does – yes, give me a book!

  3. Chris Kavanagh

    This review of the launching of Atheist TV suggests your inclinations are right (religious book burnings on the first day…):

    Aside from that, while I strongly agree with the value and indispensable nature of books and their thick descriptions, I think its an error to dismiss the unique benefits of other media. I enjoy reading the books of primatologists for instance, but the documentary film ‘Nim’ brought home the startling arrogance of psychologists working with primates in the 1970s and the dualistic nature of chimpanzees in a way that I don’t think a purely textual account could have. Similarly, I’m not sure I would unfavourably compare the work of documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris, Ken Burns, or even Louis Theroux, with books written on the subjects they address. And that’s only thinking about documentaries… we are living in a new golden age of television and I definitely think characters like Walter White from Breaking Bad can hold a candle to many complex literary creations.

    It is also, at least a little ironic, to see someone on a blog that many of the readers will access through apps, smart phones and tablets etc. denigrating such ‘cacophonous’ tech jazz.

  4. Dominik Lukes

    Let’s me join you in expressing my love for books over TV documentaries. In fact, I hate, hate, hate TV documentaries. Shots of people walking to a place instead of shots of evidence.

    But despite my love I’m equally suspicious of books. Despite the opportunity for thick description and voluminous exposition, books are more likely to trick us into an illusion of completeness. The process of authoring a book is still primarily a process of selection and exclusion.

    Books also force us (both perceptually and authorially) into modes of story telling which create narrative worlds in which things start making sense that perhaps we should try to unpick and unpack. Also, they don’t exist alone. There is a complex web of conversations, teaching, reviews, polemics, exegeses surrounding books that gives the lie to the notion of a book as a complete phenomenon.

    Blogs, youtube videos or TV shows they all provide different unities and complexities. People compiling blog posts into books (or using blogs to keep track of underlying research for books on blogs) are more and more common. It’s the same process of formulation and reformulation that Darwin engaged in with the Origin of Species (to the point of there not being one definitive edition) or Dickens did with his serials.

    Ideally, academic books will become just the manifestos accompanying even richer and less organized sources of data. Sort of annotations on the world. Ian Morris, for example, wrote two books for ‘Why the west rules’ – one the published interpretation, the other his data posted on a website: Hopefully, we’ll see more, not less of it.

  5. Gyrus

    Spot on, Dominik. This is the most important thing I feel I’ve learned from recently finishing writing a book. It’s non-fiction, but I found the only way I could deal with it was to conceptualize it along the lines of narrative. The “argument” is the “plot”, etc. I wanted to make it very nuanced and complex, but all the feedback I got from my editor and others was to trim, hone, emphasize the “through line”, etc. All sound advice for making a book more readable and more saleable. But I cringed every time I felt I was artificially simplifying something for the purpose of “readability”. I’m not dismissing that, of course – books need to be readable. But we need to be aware that a good part of this readability is the pleasure that the illusion of “completeness” (as you say) gives us. Great non-fiction writers manage the balance between complexity and this illusion well, but for the most part the market is dominated by very, very good non-fiction writers, who sacrifice too much complexity to be great, but just enough to be an absolute delight to read, and a best-seller.

    The way forward is definitely an interplay between the static printed document and the living website. Knowing that I could repurpose and expand the complexities I cut out on a web site was the only thing that made making those cuts bearable!

  6. John Balch

    I know this post is older, but I had to say I chuckled aloud at the description of Atheist programming. It reminds me of Carl Sagan’s long rant in his book The Demon Haunted World (1996) about the popularity of shows like the X-Files. He proposes the following programs instead:

    “• The wonders and methods of science routinely presented on news and talk programmes. There’s real human drama in the process of discovery.
    • A series called ‘Solved Mysteries’, in which tremulous specula- tions have rational resolutions, including puzzling cases in forensic medicine and epidemiology.
    • ‘Ring My Bells Again’ – a series in which we relive the media and the public falling hook, line and sinker for a coordinated government lie. The first two episodes might be the Bay of Tonkin ‘incident’ and the systematic irradiation of unsuspecting and unprotected American civilians and military personnel in the alleged requirements of ‘national defence’ following 1945.
    • A separate series on fundamental misunderstandings and mis- takes made by famous scientists, national leaders and religious figures.
    • Regular exposes of pernicious pseudoscience, and audience- participation ‘how-to’ programmes: how to bend spoons, read minds, appear to foretell the future, perform psychic surgery, do cold reads, and press the TV viewers’ personal buttons. How we’re bamboozled: learn by doing.
    • A state-of-the-art computer graphics facility to prepare in advance scientific visuals for a wide range of news contingencies.
    • A set of inexpensive televised debates, each perhaps an hour long, with a computer graphics budget for each side provided by the producers, rigorous standards of evidence required by the moderator, and the widest range of topics broached. They could address issues where the scientific evidence is over- whelming, as on the matter of the shape of the Earth; controversial matters where the answer is less clear, such as the survival of one’s personality after death, or abortion, or animal rights, or genetic engineering; or any of the presumptive pseudosciences mentioned in this book.” (354)

    Sounds just about as compelling as anything airing on “Atheist TV,” albeit significantly less polemical.

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