Binge Culture

April 15, 2020 / Eliza Pillsbury

The Internet ruined my brain.

This is a familiar refrain, one that I repeat to myself when I’ve been scrolling through Instagram for hours on end. I appreciate how connected the Internet makes me feel to creatives who inspire me or friends who go to school across the country. There’s endless content to consume, but I’ve realized this can be both a blessing and a curse. I’m worried I’ll miss something important if I don’t spend every moment of my free time monitoring election news or binge-watching the latest viral docu series on Netflix (“Cheer” did live up to the hype). It’s not a self-conscious need to be “in the know”; rather, I know that I will never be able to witness all of the beauty and knowledge in the world, even if I tried. That doesn’t stop me from trying.

Even reading books is not the same for me anymore. When I was home in December, I would read for twelve hours straight. I read 384 pages of “Where the Crawdads Sing” in two days and 964 pages of “The Goldfinch” in six days. I discovered what I like to call “binge-reading” by effectively replacing mindless social media scrolling with literature. Don’t get me wrong, it was a glorious existence. I read eight books total — the same number that I read outside of school in the previous months of 2019 combined.

I’d forgotten how much I love reading, so I’ve tried to incorporate it into my routine once I got back to school. I want to take in as much good writing as I can to hone my craft, but I no longer have the luxury of an empty schedule, so I’ve been thinking about what I miss by consuming content en masse.

At home, there was nothing stopping me from swallowing books whole instead of taking time to savor a story. I’ve always hated cliffhangers, but instead of sitting with the discomfort of uncertainty (a skill that I should probably apply to my real life), I could choose to read through to the last chapter, when the author is forced to resolve the conflict for the sake of a satisfying ending. Now, other obligations might force me to put down a book for weeks at a time. My initial reaction to this was impatience, but as I started to adapt to the breakneck speed of the semester, I found that there’s something beautiful about reading a book over a longer period of time.

I carry the characters with me throughout the day like an alternate reality. After I’ve finished my required reading, which is usually philosophy or political theory, I read to forget about my other responsibilities for a while; when those responsibilities threaten to overwhelm me, I read to escape into another world. In each of these moments, I’m grateful to have a book in progress that is independent of the Internet’s pace.

Netflix’s model of releasing entire seasons at a time facilitates binge culture. There's new incentive to finish shows quickly. Anyone could accidentally spoil the season for you in conversation, even if you take precautions to stay off social media until you’re caught up. Or worse, you might miss out on pop culture trends that change every time you refresh Twitter. We live in an instant gratification culture, and you risk irrelevance if you are uninformed.

Saving a book to read next week or next month requires hope amidst this insecurity, a plan for future leisure even under the more existential threats of climate change or coronavirus. It requires understanding the destructive forces that are largely beyond my control and defending against them with whatever tools I have, including my words and the words of others. Fiction, then, should be a different experience than binge-watching television because it becomes less entertainment and more a matter of survival.

I saw a recent tweet about how to maintain one’s mental health amidst this particularly anxiety-inducing news cycle (not that I haven’t been anxious about the state of our country since, I don’t know, November 2016) that cautioned against the compulsion to “binge watch the world burn.” Perhaps my habit of rapid consumption is a survival instinct gone wrong. Eating all of one’s canned food on the first day of the apocalypse isn’t very practical. If I can train myself to slow down and be present with what is in front of me while it lasts, I might also be able to enjoy it more when it’s gone, instead of rushing towards the next shiny thing, whatever else I’ve convinced myself will bring temporary fulfillment. I might still be able to reconstruct my ruined brain, even as the world burns. ■

by: Eliza Pillsbury

graphics by: Angie Huang

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