When I was a first-time mum back in the mists of time, my newborn would pause in his remorseless quest for food ("Are you feeding that baby again?" people inquired helpfully) to listen intently when the theme for the network news came on. I don't know if he learned to recognise the sound of my voice while in the womb but he entered the world knowing that urgent, vaguely military opening blast. Already entranced, as I was, by television.
It was the 70s, when we barrelled around in a Ford Anglia with the baby untethered in a carrycot on the back seat. My mum suggested that a glass of stout (while watching the news) was good for the milk supply. Cheers!
So much to look back in horror upon. One thing that did induce a sense of guilt even then was being caught watching daytime television. Feet up reading a book, even a Mills & Boon? Commendable. Watching Selwyn Toogood in his safari suit and a panel of ladies discuss such issues as smoking and how to get rust marks out of flannelette sheets on Beauty and the Beast? For shame. To this day if there's a knock at the door while I'm lolling in front of Location, Location, Location eating carbs, I hit the off switch and pretend to be reading the London Review of Books.
I thought about this at the Auckland Writers Festival. It was moving, in these fragile times, to have the festival back and crowds turning out to demonstrate that news of the death of books has been greatly exaggerated. The punters – mostly older, many women – smiled benignly upon each other, as if we had met power walking in activewear. Studies have shown that books can improve empathy, decision-making, social skills … No wonder some devout readers track their books in the way fitness freaks Fitbit their steps and calories. It's science.
Television does not trail such clouds of virtue. The new golden age of post-The Sopranos brilliance now streaming into our living rooms means that it's okay to discuss the merits of Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown or the brilliance of I May Destroy You in polite company but it's still a badge of honour not to have seen Meghan and Harry's Oprah interview. No child gets told off for reading a book. Television carries on as it began: a guilty pleasure.
Yet nothing is really so binary. I grew up with seven channels and, as a child, often read, played with my Barbie or lit small bonfires in my parents' ashtray while watching Dr Kildare and Bonanza. I'm still often scanning a magazine or checking Twitter while keeping an eye on the news or, God help me, The Masked Singer. I multi-screen, therefore I am. Studies have shown this may be bad for your memory. If so, they should make less crap television.
I love books: people announce that a lot. Books can be Primo Levi's If This is a Man. Books can be Mein Kampf. Some books I read growing up possibly damaged my psyche more than a steady diet of violent cartoons and sexist sitcoms. In an early favourite, Enid Blyton's slightly xenophobic Circus of Adventure, a young foreign boy turns up. To express disapproval of his strange continental ways, Dinah puts a hot tea tray down on his bare legs. Most of the classics that were a revelation – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird, Oliver Twist, Lolita – are now considered problematic.
Books and television: now everyone can be a writer, a producer, a publisher or a pain in the ass on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Substack ... In the end it's all just different ways of decoding the experience of being alive. As Virginia Woolf might have said on some television panel led by a man in a safari suit if such things had existed when she was writing books, "Let us record the atoms as they fall." Reading television and reading books: why not have it all?