For a long time, the word binge generally meant one thing in American conversation: eating way too much in one sitting. The word connotes overindulgence, unhealthy excess; when I have two Oreos, I'm having dessert, but when I eat the whole sleeve and half of the next, I'm binging. Afterward, I feel less satisfied than uncomfortably, overly full and a bit queasy.
Thus, this word did seem appropriate to attach to the new trend of watching many episodes of a TV show in a row. After letting Netflix nudge me through 11 straight episodes of Parks and Recreation, House of Cards, or (forgive me) Say Yes to the Dress, I also feel uncomfortable and a bit queasy; rather than savoring the episodes and feeling satisfied by them, I feel a pervading sense of shame over the lost hours and wish I'd just stopped after two. Binge-watching perfectly captures the sense of self-indulgence and excess that follow a full day spent in bed with the laptop open and Netflix set to autoplay.
Proud binge-watchers were quick, however, to recast the term as a hip new activity. Where's the shame, they asked, in devoting several consecutive hours to a finely crafted drama like Orange Is the New Black? Binge-watching simultaneously exhibits a sort of flawed relatability and an aspirational appreciation for culture; there's just something so likable about it. We all binge-watch, and we're all happy to soothe our consciences with the arguable artistic merits of the shows we're gobbling up, or even by celebrating our taste in trash TV as a sign that we're down-to-earth. Binge-watching has become the in thing to do.
Soon, well-meaning booklovers decided TV shouldn't get all the binging. It was time for reading to become a binge activity as well.
Sorry guys, that's where I draw the line. Here's why: Reading is not a binge activity. Reading for long hours at a time is mentally engaging, surrounds the reader with an aura of productivity, and does not leave one with a sense of remorse and embarrassment. No one says, "I was so lazy this weekend. All I did was sit around and read Swann's Way. And then when I finished... I started Infinite Jest! I know, I know, I have a problem."
Besides, the idea that spending several hours with a book needs a new term is an absurd concept. It's called reading. The activity of sitting down with a novel for the afternoon is not a trend; it's just how reading has almost always worked.
TV is a form of entertainment that had, until now, always been limited by the mode of delivery. Each show would air one new episode a week, meaning 30 minutes to an hour of bliss. Even if you were watching on your DVR or Hulu, the situation militated against binge-watching. To save up enough episodes to binge-watch, you had to consciously stockpile episodes. To binge-watch an old show, you had to rent the DVDs. These barriers meant that most of us watched no more than a couple episodes at a time, so that, barring aimless channel-surfing through reruns and infomercials, TV viewing was something enjoyed in relatively brief, contained sections of the day. Just enough for satisfaction.
Netflix, of course, changed all that, first by making it easy to watch old seasons of shows, and then by producing their own content, which they began to dump on the site a season at a time. Suddenly, there was nothing standing in the way of people gulping down shows five to 10 episodes at a time rather than one to two. A trend was born.
To be fair, books haven't always been consumed in full-length form, and like TV shows, they have a proud history of serialization. Books, especially new hardcovers, aren't exactly cheap now, but they were once considered luxury goods, and resources like libraries and cheap paperbacks were not widespread. By printing a new book in monthly or weekly installments, a magazine or newspaper publisher could bring literature to less affluent readers at an affordable price.
Charles Dickens famously published many of his novels in serial form, creating a Breaking Bad-esque sense of anticipation as his stories approached their climaxes. As his story The Old Curiosity Shop neared its conclusion, Dickens received passionate letters from readers begging him to spare the life of the heroine, Little Nell, and there were famous reports of fans mobbing the dock to greet the ship bringing the final installment, calling out to the crew and passengers, "Is Little Nell dead?" Surely these readers would have "binged" on the story of Little Nell had there been a Netflix option for books at the time.
Serialization of books, however, has dwindled significantly in the past hundred years. As printing technology improved and cheap paperbacks began to proliferate in the mid-18th century, readers were increasingly able to find reading material without following a serial in the newspaper. And as the 20th century approached, new media options emerged. If you just wanted a quick bit of entertainment after dinner or a running soap opera to follow, it became easier to tune in to a regular radio drama or, later, TV show.
However, for many decades, radio and TV shows were only available at specific times, on specific channels. If you wanted to catch the next episode, you needed to tune in to the right channel at exactly 8 pm on Thursday. If you didn't care for anything that was being broadcast that night, you were out of luck. Books increasingly filled another niche -- reading a book was an activity that could be done at will and for extended lengths of time. Reading a book could fill a brief wait in the dentist's office, but also a leisurely afternoon at the beach. Back when TV was a rationed commodity, a book was something relatively limitless, a form of entertainment that only needed to end once we finished the whole thing ourselves. The timeframe was up to us.
A recent New York Times article argued that publishers are encouraging binge-reading by releasing books in a series increasingly quickly -- months apart, rather than years. But true binging requires a seamless transition; we're not "binging" on House of Cards because we watch two seasons several months apart, but because each episode in the season is viewed in swift succession. A book, like a season of a TV show, is complete in itself, though it can also be part of a larger story. Reading one book, then the next in the series five months later, does not constitute a particularly meaningful difference in how we read, though it may be a good response to readers' impatience in waiting for series to unfold.
People who cared to read books quickly or in large quantities have long had the ability to do so; I'm sure I'm not the only kid who would burn through stacks of YA novels over weekends and reread favorites so often the bindings fell apart. Recently I've been spending long Sunday afternoons with books like The Goldfinch and Americanah, eagerly churning through the chapters, unable to tear myself away for hundreds of pages at a time because I long to know what happens next. This is not a trend; it's how we read. That's always been the beauty of books.
The push to make "binge-reading" a thing arises from a wonderful impulse. In the age of prestige TV dramas, book lovers want to reaffirm the value of reading. Awkwardly tying books into the binge-watching trend is a valiant attempt to make reading just as hip as watching the first two seasons of Game of Thrones in less than a week. But in 2014, the phrase "binge-reading" seems as redundant as "ATM machine," not to mention an unintended insult to books and reading. The joy of reading has always been its ability to transport us, to not only occupy a quiet Saturday but to stimulate our minds and hearts. A day spent reading is never a day wasted. And it's also not a day spent binging.