McGinnis: The Medium is Not the MessageWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It all started with an honest question on my Facebook page. I asked my friends if anyone had read the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series, and if they had, what was the deal? I wasn’t judging, I was genuinely curious.
It seemed odd to me that this would be the book series that would dominate the publishing world nowadays. A reskinned “Twilight” fan fiction turned into a steamy, sadomasochistic romantic romp that fans the world over can’t get enough of, E.L. James’ trilogy has become booksellers’ pride and joy. It has moved more paperbacks than any series in history, including “Harry Potter.”
I have not read “Fifty Shades,” and I can’t see that changing any time soon. The reviews I’ve seen have not exactly been glowing, and it’s clear that I am not really James’ target audience anyway. But the series’ status as the towering champion of the book world hangs over any discussion of pop culture like the sword of Damocles. Sooner or later, like “Potter” or “Twilight” before it, it shall have to be engaged by any student of modern media. (The impending and inevitable “Fifty Shades” movie will probably be the point where it hits my turf head on.)
So, before that day comes, I decided it was important to get educated on what inspired the intense fandom. I began to do research, read reviews and, then, asked my Facebook pals for their input. Those that had read the book offered a few theories while expressing the opinion that “Fifty” was hardly a quality piece of writing.
Then, one of my friends posed the question, “Since when is reading bad?” She asked this as if even by wondering what made “Fifty” a success, I was looking a gift horse in the mouth. Who cares if it’s not any good — at least people are reading. That’s good in and of itself, right?
Well … no. Not necessarily.
It’s an attitude that has puzzled me for a while — the idea that the act of reading is an absolute good. It’s drilled into all of us from a young age that it is fundamental, of course, and literacy campaigns have underlined how critical being able to read is in functioning within the world. These efforts are wonderful in inspiring young people, for certain.
But it surprises me how many adults still take the surface message of these campaigns — reading is good and important — and think it is an inarguable truth that trumps objections to any reading matter. The fact is it’s only part of the equation. What is equally important is, how do you respond to what you are reading?
In the commentary track for David Fincher’s “Seven” (I refuse to spell it with a number where the ‘v’ should be), Morgan Freeman is discussing his tenure as “Easy Reader” on the classic PBS children’s series “The Electric Company.” He mentions how many people have come up to him over the years and noted that he taught them how to read. He then wonders if he taught them how to think about what they were reading.
His comments puzzled me for a while. Was Freeman suggesting that his work on “The Electric Company” was in vain? Not at all, I think. He’s saying the effort was incomplete. Characters like “Easy Reader” instill in children the importance of being able to read, which is wonderful. But that’s only half the goal. From there, it’s up to teachers, to parents, and ultimately to ourselves to grow into thinking critically about what we read.
Books, just like every form of media, are a delivery system for ideas. What is being said is more important than how one says it. I could sit on my keyboard for five minutes and call the resulting text a “column,” but no one would say reading that was an absolute good. And rightly so. It’d be like me seeing someone going in to watch a really crappy movie and responding, “Well, at least they’re seeing a film.” Or watching “Jersey Shore” and saying, “Hey, since when is TV bad?”
This isn’t meant to pass judgment on “Fifty Shades” readers, or readers of anything, in fact. This is merely to say that arguing that “at least they’re reading something” can’t stand as a counter to any objection to a piece of work, and that goes for any form of art. The medium is not the message — it’s just the way the message is sent. And how we respond to that message helps tell us who we are.