The Quaalude of Solace: TV and Thinky Modes of Reading


Thus began my week.

The less said about it, the better.


When the hand tremors finally began to fade away on Wednesday, I discovered that I have two vastly different modes of reading, depending on how curdled my brains are.

The first I’ll call “TV mode”. In this mode, my brain has the bounce of a squashed and soggy tennis ball, an inert state achieved either through 18 straight hours of brain-draining work or extremely bad meds. Text must be more interactive with me than I with it, which means there’s three options for enjoyment:

  • Text that does most of the thinking for me. This is not to say that the text doesn’t express complex ideas; indeed, the best non-fiction in this mode often has complicated things to say. It just doesn’t try to imply the heck out of them, but brings them forwards and raises the questions and answers at least some of them.

  • Text that is not very thinky in the first place. This is text that doesn’t express complex ideas at all or, indeed, much in the way of ideas. This kind of text is always moving—perhaps in the emotional sense, but usually in the physical sense. This is not to say that the text is childish or ill-written; the best non-thinky text is smoothly written because then you’re not tripping over idiocies of language all the time.

  • Text that has a non-thinky first level of meaning that still makes sense when joined to the second, deeper level, or whatever. In TV mode I may not sense the second level of meaning in much detail, but if it’s there and doesn’t make sense combined with the first level, this will disturb me. And since I’m in TV mode, I’ll change the channel (another reason why I love the Kindle).

    If both the first and second (and third, and however deep) levels all move together, however, all is right with the world even if I’m only really understanding level 1. It’s the difference between a school of fish that’s scattered and a school that moves as one creature, with different layers of movement concealed within the formation.

And of course, texts can undulate between the options.

Before my mind went the color of television tuned to a dead channel, and I couldn’t tune it, I’d never stepped back to view why we read the kind of things we do after a very long day at work or school. It goes beyond escapism; or at least, this is an elaboration of what’s needed to make the escape envelop the reader. I’m not a snob; I do read in TV mode when I’ve had a really, really bad spurt of oncall say.

The other mode I’ll call… “Thinky Mode”! (Yes, my brains are still curdled as of this writing. Why do you ask?)

In Thinky Mode, the text must challenge me and provide me opportunities to interact with it. This is not a “may”, this is a “must”. When I’m reading in this mode, most any poor text that does not look at things in a different way, or doesn’t have meaningful significance in characterization or action or plot (note—it’s not significance in life I’m looking for, but significance to the story), or doesn’t turn my expectations completely on their head, tends to be judged as “meh” even if it’s otherwise passable. (The bad stuff remains, as ever, the bad stuff.)

Some texts require Thinky Mode. Like reading a Hugo-winning digest of short stories.

Which has significance with relation to my current reviewing of the stories in the October/November issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine; it means that my tolerance is much, much lower than TV mode. It also means that right now, I’m not really able to read anything and give it a decent review (which I try to do even for things that are “meh” to me).

A text that does well in Thinky Mode may also be doing well in TV Mode. For many people, this is pretty much the definition of their favorite stories and books.

And now I’m going to go read more about unhappy Moldovians in Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss. It’s non-fiction, but it addresses a concern that beats at the heart of many science-fiction and fantasy tales: how do we get to happy?

And indeed, I and my doctor will be pondering the same question next week, when I go back for more drug experimentation evaluation.