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In 1978, Harlan Ellison published a fine collection of his short stories, called Strange Wine, with an Introduction entitled, “Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself.” This was Harlan’s classic broadside against the watching of television.
I was reminded of him while reading a news story headlined: “Almost 40% of university students surveyed are addicted to their phones.” Harlan could have easily updated his Introduction against all of social media. (If you’d like to read the full version of the Introduction, go to Strange Wine on Amazon Kindle, click on the “Look inside” cover image, and scroll down.
Let me give you the highlights:
He begins by saying that it’s all about drinking strange wine, and that it will seem disjointed and will jump around like water on a griddle, but it all comes together, so please be patient.
He mentions a news story about an anchorwoman who committed suicide on camera, making a statement about television on television. (Echoes of the film Network.) Next, he recaps a talk with Dan Blocker of Bonanza about a fan who seemed not to understand that Lorne Greene was in fact not in reality his father.
Once during a college lecture, Harlan casually mentioned that he had actually thought up the words spoken by the Star Trek cast in the sole episode he had written. A young man jumped up in tears and screamed, “Liar!”
Harlan says that these stories about people who merge television and reality illustrate how television is a bad thing. And that he took stock of how much time he himself spent watching television, and it scared him.
In college students, he had noted a zombiatic response, manifesting primarily in the kinds of questions he was asked. Not about his lengthy body of written work, but rather, “What was it like to work on Star Trek?” and “Why did Tom Snyder keep cutting you off on the Tomorrow show?” And Harlan gets angry with them about how shallow and programmed television is making them. And they don’t like him for it.
Television, unlike books or old-time radio, “is systematically oriented toward stunning the imagination.”
For him, “A book is a participatory adventure. It involves a creative act at its inception and a creative act when its purpose is fulfilled. The writer dreams the dream and sets it down; the reader reinterprets the dream in personal terms, with personal vision, when he or she reads it. Each creates a world. The template is the book.”
After a couple of pages of detail, he concludes, “Quite clearly, if one but looks around to assess the irrefutable evidence of reality, books strengthen the dreaming facility, and television numbs it. Atrophy soon follows.”
Yes, and what does social media do to the imagination and ability to think complex thoughts? Even to us, who use it much more than we should?
A high school teacher told him three stories:
First, a 15-year-old student rejected reading books because they weren’t real. “Because it was your imagination, and your imagination isn’t real.” What was real? Television. Because you could see it.
Second, students missed an important school function one night because they stayed home to watch the drama Helter Skelter based on the Manson murder spree. The next day the teacher compared the movie as being not real compared to a living event that was real. Another student insisted that it was real, he had seen it.
Third, each class had a television set, mostly unused. When the teacher had trouble controlling the class, she would turn the set on with nothing but snow, and they would settle down.
After several pages of more stories, some horrific, Harlan comes to his conclusion, which should not be paraphrased, because it is perfectly written, and is best to end this meditation:
All this programs the death of reading.
And reading is the drinking of strange wine.
Like water on a hot griddle, I have bounced around, but the unification of the thesis is at hand.
Drinking strange wine pours strength into the imagination.
The dinosaurs had no strange wine. They had no imagination. They lived 130,000,000 years and vanished. Why? Because they had no imagination. Unlike human beings who have it and use it and build their future rather than merely passing through their lives as if they were spectators. Spectators watching television, one might say.
The saurians had no strange wine, no imagination, and they became extinct. And you don’t look so terrific yourself.