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September 20, 2004

"Building a Skyscraper"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I recently raved about the four-part Modern Marvels episode, "Building a Skyscraper." Although the History Channel hasn't scheduled the show for re-broadcast, I just noticed that they do offer it for sale. The DVD can be bought here.

How much video-buying do you do? I used to pride myself on not buying videos and DVDs, despite being a pretty serious movie buff. (Some of my movie-buff friends have entire bookshelves full of videos and DVDs.) Movies are experiences rather than physical things ... Videos are expensive ... So why not rent 'em instead? ... But in the last year or so, I've found myself being far less Zen and buying a fair number of DVDs. And when I ask myself why, I don't feel bad about the reasons my brain volunteers -- DVDs have come to seem like quite reasonable purchases, in fact.

A new DVD may generally be more expensive than a new book. But DVDs offer a lot, too -- production values and visuals, of course. But also ease. A documentary-on-video about a given topic is almost always shorter than a book on the same topic would be. I'm simply not 400 or 600 pages' interested in all that many subjects, where I'm one or two hours' interested in tons of subjects. And DVDs are easier on the eyes than books are -- a consideration that's becoming important to me as I move into my 50s.

Part of what can be great about a book is the author's presence: his individual voice, his personal style, his quirky point-of-view, his quicksilver insights. Yet, realistically speaking, how many nonfiction authors are so good that they make it worth the extra trouble it takes to read them instead of watching a documentary about the same subject? The book author is likely to be interviewed in the documentary anyway. (Note to blogsurfers: new Blowhard Francis Morrone is most definitely one of the nonfiction book-writers it's well worth making the effort to read. You'll get a lot from his books you'll never get from a video documentary.) Another big plus is that watching a video doesn't have to be a solitary activity. After the fun of watching a DVD with The Wife -- gabbing and comparing notes all the way through -- reading a book can seem like a lonely affair.

As a consequence of all this, I find that I'm far more likely to get through the DVDs I buy than I am to get through the books I buy. I actually put 'em to use. Thirty bucks may buy two books where it buys only one DVD. But thirty bucks spent on one DVD that The Wife and I have a good time watching sure beats thirty bucks spent on two books that do nothing but gather dust on the bookshelf.

Speaking of gathering dust, I find that, for some reason, I don't hoard DVDs the way I hoard books. I do like keeping a few around as part of the permanent collection: Robert Altman! Bertrand Blier! Bob Hope! But not many -- and no nonfiction videos. Once through with a documentary on DVD, I'm completely happy to pass it along to a friend or a library. That's another attraction -- DVDs: better than books for an apartment's feng shui.

Needless to say, I remain a major book addict ...



posted by Michael at September 20, 2004


I sometimes question the wisdom of buying DVDs too, although I now own a couple hundred of 'em. But DVD does seem to be the home video format that will remain in circulation with upgrading technology (your old DVDs WILL PLAY and look fine on the new hi-def 'Blu-Ray' DVD players set to hit the market next year, though some of them will probably be re-issued in Blu-Ray format after a new HD mastering). And for movie buffs (at least for this movie buff)--aren't you likely to watch each of your favorite films a few more times over the next 10 years? Can you say the same thing about your favorite books? I'll certainly watch THE WILD BUNCH twice in the next decade, but will I re-read LOLITA? Can't say. Just a thought.

Posted by: Dick on September 20, 2004 8:55 AM

Dovetailing into something you mentioned. "Once through with a documentary on DVD, I'm completely happy to pass it along to a friend or a library." How do you do that? Seriously. I live in a small (1,600 sq ft) 3 story house with a spouse & 2 teenagers. It is crammed with books and cd's. Crammed. Every room, including the bathroom has at least 1 bookshelf; most rooms have 2-3. What is the process of reading, listening, or watching and letting that media (book, cd, DVD/VHS) leave your house...willingly? I'd love to read a blog where you share your methodology..and then the blog comments that follow. With my arrival into the 50's, I find it even harder to let go; it's as if I'm saying goodbye not just to memories but my memory. Seriously! Some insight would be ab fab.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 20, 2004 9:59 AM

Don't forget the role that the physical aspects of DVDs plays in encouraging their acquisition; they take up far less shelf space and hold far more information at a much lower manufacturing cost than VHS cassettes (These are the same qualities which facilitated the explosion of complete seasons of TV series on DVD). One can't go into a store like Target without encountering dozens of DVD offerings for ten dollars or less; I paid six dollars for the Adam West/Burt Ward BATMAN movie and ten for THE BIG LEBOWSKI, for instance.

Posted by: Chris Galdieri on September 20, 2004 11:12 AM

30 bucks for one DVD? You may want to check out, even if you're just buying 2-disc criterion sets or whatever you could probably find better deals there.

Posted by: Jesse M. on September 21, 2004 12:13 AM

Books -vs- Videos. In the 60s - 70s there was a theory that the way our brains process information was conditioned by the way we receive it. With television or videos, information was received in bursts of images without as clear a progression of logic as a book tends to present it.

The conclusion was that people who read train their brains to process information in a more linear and logical fashion.

The conclusion was, also, that the, then, present generation was going to hell because of TV and thats always hard to argue with.

Posted by: Steve Furst on September 21, 2004 5:29 AM

thirty bucks buys two sacks of used books, like.


Posted by: graywyvern on September 21, 2004 4:36 PM

Dick -- You're one of these new mediakids, aren't you, for whom there's no hierarchy. Books, movies, videogames -- they're all media options, and one's not better than the other. I find that pretty refreshing, especially after years spent around excessively book-y people. What do the older folks look like to you? With their attachment to traditional arts and traditional hierarchies? Good to hear too that current DVDs will play on future higher-tech players. Phew.

DarkoV -- Boy, no one's ever asked me for advice about cleaning house before. I dunno. Occasionally The Wife glares at me, so I gather up an armful of books and movies and such that I figure I won't miss, and chuck 'em in the closet. Eventually it becomes such a mess in there that I buy a few cardboard boxes, fill 'em, tape 'em up, and UPS 'em to friends and libraries. It's a pain and I drag my feet, but life does seem a little better when the air circulates more easily. But I think "no kids," "a small apartment," and "a doorman who can meet the UPS guy" play a big role in my system. Sounds like you've got a lively household! What's your media-management routine?

Chris -- That's a good point, thanks. DVDs really are much more physically pleasing than videocassetes. They seem trim and solid, and like they'll be around for a while. I wonder if the people who've invested heavily in DVD collections will be upgrading their movies when the new high-def DVDs come along. Any hunch?

Jesse -- Thanks for the link. Without being clear enough about it, I was mainly thinking about nonfiction DVDs, which for some reason tend to run around 20 or 30 bucks -- the good ones, anyway, tend to be a little expensive, I don't know why, where many of the fiction-film DVDs have gotten pretty reasonable. My way of coping is to buy used nonfiction DVDs from Amazon (and their associates) -- haven't had a bad experience yet, and typically get the discs for about half their new price. But I'll be checking out your link -- it sounds like a necessary one.

Steve -- I generally buy the "the media you consume affect the way your brain works" theory, at least if it isn't taken too too seriously, as the answer to everything. It seems to me clear, for instance, that people who grew up on books have minds that are differently ordered than people who have grown up on tv/computers/videogames. And I've talked to teachers who say that they can always tell which kids watch too much TV -- their attention spans are short, and they act out impulsively more than other kids do. But I'm wary too. There are always people who'll try to turn such observations into general and absolute theories, which makes me nervous. Do you buy the idea more generally?

Graywyvern -- Yeah, there are a lot of great book deals to be had, god knows. But I do find that I'm more likely to watch a DVD I guy than I am to read a book I buy. Maybe this is just me, though. How do you find your batting average to be?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 22, 2004 11:15 AM

Re: Media management routine.
It's good to read that "the Wife glaring" methodology is a universal prod to de-clutterizing. Steam blowing out the ears (from aforementioned Wife) is also a useful technique. And if course, as a last resort to cure a husband's Oblomovism, there's the crack open a window, poke your head out and look right and then left, and, finally, start throwing out the collected works of (insert your favorite author or magazine here) to the street below.
Combatting these spousal actions involves chicanery and the rescucitating of hiding techniques you used when you were a kid. My personal preference involves bookshelves. Be sure you have wide (at least 20 inches) shelves. The books, cd's, DVD's stacked in the shelves should be pulled out almost to the edge of each shelve. Then carefully tuck in additional items behind the battlement that you've created. This works for at least a month or so, before the Glare turns into X-Ray vision. Then it's time to beg for storage space from an understanding friend or bibliophile. However, throwing any printed matter or cd is out of the question.
I need help.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 23, 2004 7:33 AM

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