Beyond the Binge

Column: Confessions of a Binge Reader

A Clockwork Orange
November 29, 2013

When Thanksgiving transitioned from a Puritan-influenced feast of civic gratitude into a four-day festival of consumption is not entirely clear. But that is where we are today: at a place in our proverbial and increasingly depressing "national story" where the events of the holiday itself are overshadowed by the rituals associated with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. That the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend has so far been officially untouched by the dark arts of marketing and branding can be attributed to a somewhat anachronistic respect for religion, or to a failure of creativity. Let me therefore suggest an appropriate nickname and activity. Starting this year, let’s all celebrate Binge Sunday.

Set aside Thanksgiving Day for the overconsumption of food, reserve the other three days for the overconsumption of goods, but consecrate Binge Sunday to the overconsumption of electronic media. Binge watching, or binge viewing, in which one watches a particular television drama or comedy series for hours at a time, is the pastime of the moment. The development is a recent one. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer says a contributor to an X-Files listserv coined the term "binge watching" back in 1998, and a DVD critic for a news syndicate is credited with its first appearance in the mainstream media in 2003. It was not until this year, however, that binge watching became commonplace.

As usual, the culprit is technology: The skyrocketing membership in subscription services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and the mass proliferation of DVRs, makes binging so much easier. Long gone are the days when one had to wait for the boxed DVD set to arrive before watching an entire season of the Sopranos or the Battlestar Galactica remake. Also gone are the days when one had to wait before buying on iTunes new episodes of The Shield. The turning point may have been when Netflix decided to release, all at once, the entire first season of House of Cards. No longer do audiences feel bound by the periodicity of what continues to be called, for the time being, "episodic" drama. You can watch an entire season of House of Cards or of Friday Night Lights in one sitting if you like, and if you have Sitzfleish (German for buns of steel). I know people who have done so. I’m related to them.

DVRs multiply opportunities for binging. DVR storage capacity has increased markedly. Since September I have been watching episodes of the 2011 documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey on Turner Classic Movies. Each week, to accompany the documentary, the network runs films of the era under discussion. I record most of them. On my DVR at the moment are (among others) the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Gun Crazy, The Big Sleep, Cairo Station, L’Ecclise, Pickpocket, Golddiggers of 1933, both parts of The Battle of Chile, and Enter the Dragon, along with episodes of Homeland, Inside the NFL, Family Guy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, The Crazy Ones, and still other shows. Yet my DVR says it’s at only 15 percent capacity. This isn’t bragging. It’s a cry for help.

Our young and affluent meritocrats seem unaware of binge watching’s class implications. Not only are there material requirements—television, cable, DVR, Blu-ray player, subscription fees, etc.—there is also the matter of time. The ability to watch most of Breaking Bad over the course of a single weekend or holiday presupposes, or at least I hope it presupposes, temporary freedom from the necessity of work.

The connection between wealth and leisure is well established. "The term ‘leisure,’ as here used," Thorstein Veblen wrote in his 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class, "does not connote indolence or quiescence. What it connotes is non-productive consumption of time." Quite right: Binge watching can be manic.

This sort of leisure requires devices, it requires free time, but above all it requires social intelligence. What it requires is the ability to discern which shows are worth binging on and which are not. In some circles television dramas have displaced sports as the common currency of conversation. The fact that binge watching is popular among couples may have something to do with it. There comes a moment at every dinner party where the talk moves to which series people are enjoying right now. Couples play favorites: Team Mad Men goes up against Team Wire, while Team Orange is the New Black plays the feminist card to gain status.

Binge watching is competitive. The couple that devoured the entirety of Boardwalk Empire during a snowstorm is of higher rank than the friend of a friend who took a week to watch the entirety of Arrested Development. And one does not want to be left on the outside. Admitting to binging on True Blood is one thing. Admitting to binging on Duck Dynasty? That’s another.

Not only am I a binge watcher, I am a binge reader. I have a habit of discovering an author and then deciding, for no good reason, to read everything that that author has written. Six years ago I assigned myself the task of reading all of Stephen King’s fiction, in the order in which it was published. Things were going very well until I hit Black House, his 2001 sequel to The Talisman. I have a problem with novels written in the present tense: It’s a showy technique that forces the reader to pay more attention to the writing than to the story. So my odyssey ended there, though I have enjoyed King’s recent story collection Just After Sunset and his short novel Joyland.

My experience of reading George R.R. Martin, which began when I bought an HBO tie-in copy of Game of Thrones at Penn Station in the spring of 2011, did not end until I had read all of A Song of Ice and Fire; his two-volume collection of short fiction; his vampire novel Fevre Dream; and his teleplay and novella collection Quartet. Copies of three other Martin novels are on my shelves, as is a used copy of the story-cycle Tuf Voyaging. A recent Waugh binge sent me from Scoop to The Loved One to Robbery Under Law to Vile Bodies to the Sword of Honour trilogy. The other day I finished Dan Simmons’s Ilium, a far-out sci-fi pastiche that takes characters from Homer and Shakespeare and puts them alongside humans and sentient robots. The sequel, Olympos, should have arrived at my house by the time you read this.

My binge reading is not limited to fiction. I have read every word of Joan Didion’s collected nonfiction (as well as two of her five novels). I found Richard Dawkins’s Magic of Reality so well written, so thought-provoking, that I have gone from River Out of Eden to The Selfish Gene to The Extended Phenotype. On my shelves, Dawkins’s books sit next to the complete Carl Sagan. Which is near the complete William F. Buckley Jr. Which is above the complete Charles Murray. Which is across the room from the complete Paul Krugman. The inhabitants of my library, I am happy to say, loathe one another.

If forced to make a choice, I would opt for binge reading over binge watching. The former demands an active not a passive intelligence, and the items on the menu are varied and limitless. Golden age of television this might be, but the form is unlikely to surpass the heights it reached in The Sopranos and Deadwood. I say this having watched neither The Wire nor Mad Men nor Breaking Bad. Those shows are no doubt excellent, but they are also derivative, in the sense that they either conform to or expand the mold fashioned by David Chase and David Milch, who each took a classic American genre and inverted it, twisted it, enlivened it with neurosis and psychosis and black humor. This coming weekend, then, you are likely to find me on my sofa, the NFL on in the background and leftovers on the coffee table, as I make my way through Olympos, and the works of David Thomson. Binge on.