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Put down a book week.

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Monday 29 April 2002

Alan McKee, Lecturer, School of English, Media and Art History, University of Queensland


Put Down a Book Week  


I've got the best idea for a cultural experiment.  


I'm trying to encourage people to break out of their normal habits, to think about the culture they consume. I'm thinking that maybe we shouldn't just do the same thing, every day week in, week out.  


So I'm going to start 'Put down a book week'.  


The idea's simple.  


I'll put up posters, and get lots of media coverage, and I'll try to persuade people that for just one week, one short week of their lives, they should avoid all books, and try to find other ways to pass the time.  


'Put down a book week', the posters will say. 'What happens during a seven day experiment in life without books? Where do you start? "Put down a book week" is a global campaign encouraging people to boycott books for one week and to challenge you to explore new ways of passing time.  


You could try talking to friends, or dancing to some music. You could even watch some television!' 


It's a funny thing that nobody has suggested a 'Put down a book week' yet - but something very similar happened just last week.  


'TV Turn off week' is gaining media attention around the world. Under a rhetoric of encouraging people to try something different, it focuses on one particular part of culture and tells them that they should give it up. But why only television, and not books?  


When I first heard about the campaign to 'turn off tv', I tried to work out the logic behind it - but any reason you come up with for encouraging people to turn off TV works just as well for books, or many other parts of our everyday cultural lives.  


Television is bad for people, you could argue. Well, yes, physically, watching TV is sedentary. Just like reading a book. Too much TV and not enough exercise makes you fat. Just like reading too many books.  


TV is bad for your eyes, you could argue. Except that a story in the Australian this week tells us that experts have now worked out reading is actually worse for children's eyes than looking at screens.  


Ah, but TV is addictive, some people argue. By which they mean that some people find it very enjoyable and watch a lot of it. Which is an interesting point - but reveals precisely the hypocrisy that is so often applied to thinking about television.  


Take the case of young Charlie Cowcher, a seven year old who, the Australian newspaper tells us, had trouble reading before he got his glasses. Now the problem is fixed, he is, and I quote, 'an avid reader'. Ah. So someone who loves TV is an addict. And someone who loves books is 'an avid reader'.  


Reading books is physically bad for children, but, of course, says the Professor who conducted the study, 'We cannot tell children to read less because reading is good for you'. Aha. Books can be forgiven all the bad they cause. But when television does the same things, it leads to a call for a TV turn off week. I am a genius. You are eccentric. She is barking mad.  


TV is popular culture. It is particularly popular with large working class audiences. And it is consistently attacked more than other media. Maybe I'm just paranoid, but I'm guessing that there's a connection there.  


There's no harm in asking people to think about the culture they consume - but how come it's only the consumers of popular mass culture who have to do it? Why not force some emeritus Professors to watch Channel Ten for a week? It would shake up their habits just as much as turning off tv would for some other citizens. 


Which brings me back to my own campaign.  


Put down a book week. How about it?  


Oh no, even better. How about this - let's start 'Turn off radio week'.  


You can switch off this radio program, which you're probably only listening to out of habit anyway, and go and try something more interesting instead. Like watching television.  


I’d like top propose that Turn Off Radio Week begins today. In fact, it starts, just about … now.  


Guests on this program:


Dr Alan McKee  


School of English, Media and Art History 

University of Queensland 



Cultural Studies Association of Australia





Australian Television: A Genealogy of Great Moments  

Oxford University Press