Magazine Feature

Getting Lost: Books, Television, and Integrated Advisory

by Andrea Lau on April 30, 2013

As the world of entertainment constantly changes, expands, and redefines its borders, so too should the libraries that serve as portals for the pursuit of leisure. Moyer’s handbook Integrated Advisory Service bolsters the argument that there is equal value in all leisure and entertainment. The concept of integrated advisory, which melds “the techniques of readers’ advisory and the multiple media that make up modern library collections,”1 is a way of making connections between different formats and genres that can maximize library resources. In today’s culture of hybridized media, visitors stroll through the stacks not just seeking books but also television shows, movies, videogames, and podcasts. An integrated approach to readers’ advisory does not limit users to one medium or restrict the librarian’s recommendations. When librarians break the barriers between different media formats and provide crossover suggestions, they can help users access more of the library’s collection while expanding their own knowledge.

This article offers an example of such integrated consumptive behavior, where the pleasure derived from a TV show is no less valid than enjoying a novel. It uses the 2004–10 ABC drama series Lost as a case in point and explores how fans connect to the show through the books it references and features. When engagement with televisual programs kindles an interest in literature, the relationship between reading and TV viewing develops into something that is not as antagonistic as presumed. It is equally possible to get Lost in the narratives of both books and television, and other media besides.

The Show

A copy of Watership Down is found in the wreckage of Oceanic Flight 815, the doomed plane that crashes on a bizarre island with eerie similarities to Aldous Huxley’s Island. A reel of film is hidden behind The Turn of the Screw on a shelf in an underground bunker, where a mysterious button must be pushed every 108 minutes. A man named John Locke puzzles over a crossword clue from the Epic of Gilgamesh. A prisoner is offered a serving of The Brothers Karamazov along with his meal, but he asks for Stephen King instead. The French science expedition boat that capsizes near the island is the Bésixdouze—a reference to The Little Prince’s asteroid. Welcome to the maddeningly multilayered and metafictional world of Lost, the 2004–10 television drama series that contained a rather high number of literary references for “idiot box” storytelling.

Throughout the series, various titles, from children’s books to classic novels, frequently popped up in cameos, and the show’s writers also liked to name-drop philosophers, scientists, and other great thinkers. Viewers congregated online at blogs and forums to discuss and dissect every episode. To Lost fans, each chapter in the story was fraught with meaning—screenshots were analyzed, sounds were played backwards, names and numbers were treated as potential clues to the show’s many mysteries. The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 may have been marooned on a tropical island populated by polar bears, a homicidal monster made of smoke, and other hostile inhabitants, but there were also plenty of books to keep them company. Lost is a curious creature: a TV show that celebrates reading, through constant allusions to literature in names, episode titles, dialogue, and characters who are seen engrossed in all sorts of books, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Ulysses. In their efforts to gain insight into the labyrinth of Lost, fans read the books that appear onscreen or are referenced on the show, based on the assumption that the books complemented or interacted with the show’s plot or themes. This led to the formation of Lost book blogs and clubs, online sites where fans gathered to talk about books they would not have picked up if it were not for the show. In this way, they became consumers of both books and television, negotiating a relationship that is not competitive but complementary.

Books vs. Television

Although it is not unheard of for involvement with TV shows to be bound up with reading, or to spark an interest in reading, it seems to be generally accepted that those who watch a lot of television read fewer books. “Is television a substitute for fiction reading? Yes, it apparently is. Fiction reading is reported by a lower number of persons if they watch a lot of television.”2 Literary readers watch an average of 2.7 hours of TV per day, while people who do not read literary works watch an average of 3.1 hours of TV per day. Watching four hours or more of TV per day was found to have a negative impact on the chances of someone reading more than 12 books per year, while watching no TV at all had a positive impact.3 Reading appears to be a waning pastime, as evidenced by a number of reports, including a National Endowment for the Arts study that compared reading in 1982, 1992, and 2002, and survey data collected over four decades in the Netherlands, where the results illustrate a steady decline in leisure reading.4 The Dutch study attributed this decline to television,5 although it concluded in 1995, before the rise of the Internet. Other research indicated stability among core readers; a New Zealand survey found that “although more people were watching television . . . more people claimed to prefer reading.”6

A common expectation is that television exerts a negative influence, particularly on children; however, reading performance in younger students has been shown to improve as the amount of television watched increases, up to more than four hours daily.7 As students become older, the beneficial effects of television appear to decrease. By age seventeen, watching TV has assumed its popular negative association with academic achievement, although some theories hold that heavy TV viewing may do the most “damage” to high achievers, and conversely raise school performance in low achievers.8 The inverse relationship between reading and television has been a recurrent international finding since the 1950s9 but not all research findings are condemnations of television. “Instead of dividing time into a pie chart—a fat slice to watching television, a thin slice to reading,”10 perhaps we should think of the media we consume as symbiotic and interconnected. After all, “studies of leisure-time use indicate that the same people watch television and read, sometimes at the same time . . . so television watching did not displace reading so much as get added onto it.”11 In any case, cultural participation is an individualized process, and “some people simply do more things than other people do.”12

Accordingly, the effects of television on reading habits vary across different populations and by the amount of television watched. “These subtleties are only now being fully understood with more sophisticated methods and more representative data.”13 According to the interest stimulation hypothesis, often used to defend TV, children who see a program on a given topic are more likely to display greater interest in it in the classroom, or they are more likely to read a book if they have seen its film or TV adaptation. Studies from as early as 1958 show that certain books were checked out from the library after their incarnation as television programs,14 and Lost viewers took up this tradition when a copy of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman appeared by a character’s bedside in the season two premiere. The book’s cameo was mentioned in USA Today and other media outlets, and the publisher subsequently ordered a new print run of 10,000 copies.15 The writer of the episode was quoted as saying, “Whoever goes out and buys the book will have a lot more information in their back pocket as they theorize about the show. They will have a lot more to speculate about—and, no small thing, they will have read a really great book.”16

Lost Book Clubs

Fans of Lost have defied the idea of watching TV as a passive activity; supported by the Internet, they shared thousands of theories about science and faith, free will and destiny, time travel and mythology. Academics published scholarly articles and books with titles like Lost and Philosophy: The Island Has Its Reasons.17 This “forensic fandom” is arguably one of the aspects that make Lost great television: its “narrative structure encourages viewers to parse the show more than simply consume it. . . . To be a Lost fan is to embrace a detective mentality, seeking out clues, charting patterns and assembling evidence into narrative hypotheses and theories.”18 In his analysis of Michel de Certeau’s work on consumptive activity, Silverstone wrote:

We no longer perceive the audience’s relation to television necessarily as a passive one. . . . The paths we trace through television culture . . . are our own paths. We need to enquire into the specificities of those paths, their uniqueness and their universality, if we are to understand the dynamics of television’s integration into everyday life.19

The many incarnations of the Lost reader are evident in the different online channels through which they engage with texts. For example, the participants in the collaborative blog Lost Books Challenge chose at least five books from the list of books alluded to or mentioned on the show, to complete reading by the time the series concluded in May 2010. Then they posted their reviews and tagged them with a “book review” label as well as the title, so that as the site grew, visitors could compare different perspectives on each book. Posts about anything related to the show, not just books, are allowed; the site aims to be “a fun place for book-blogging Losties.”20 One participant began her review with:

I realize I may be one of the last people on earth that hasn’t read Of Mice and Men as part of some literature class somewhere along the way . . . but I haven’t. The book has long been on my list of “classics to read someday,” but the Lost Books Challenge finally gave me the motivation to get to it.21

After proving the interest stimulation hypothesis, she concluded with a blanket statement:

Community. Loneliness. The search for belonging, love and acceptance. All of these themes make Lost the moving show that it is, and Of Mice and Men the
great novel that it is.

In another post about a science fiction novel by Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, the reviewer stated, “I never would have heard of The Invention of Morel if I didn’t watch Lost.”22

Another approach to reading Lost can be found within a LiveJournal community: an offshoot of Oh No They Didn’t (ONTD)—part of that most lowbrow of Internet destinations, a celebrity gossip site. ONTD Lost Reads, itself a literary subcommunity of ONTD Lost, is more concerned with books than actors. Here, the discussion on Aldous Huxley’s Island is opened with such questions as “How did you feel about the book overall?” and “Would you like to live on Pala?”23 The reference is not in a prop that appeared on the show, but in the name of a pier where several characters are taken prisoner by the mysterious Others, a group of hostile natives. Huxley’s Island is called Pala, where a surgeon is summoned to operate on the tumour-stricken Palan leader. On Lost, spinal surgeon Dr. Jack Shepherd was kidnapped to save the Others’ leader from a tumor. Pala, like the island of Lost, is a place hidden from the outside world; there are people who want to find it, and both the Others and the Palans fear this above all else. In addition, both islands are home to a temple and a number of scientific research stations. “This was a fairly daunting book, at least in terms of getting into it,” a reader commented. “But I’m really glad we started with this text, as it was thought provoking and deeply relevant to the core of the show . . . I think if I [had] just picked up this book on my own, I wouldn’t have finished it.”24

Sometimes the books are simply red herrings and hold no hidden significance to the show, but it is still enjoyable to speculate. In blogger James Brush’s review of A Wrinkle in Time, he asks whether the book’s appearance was “designed to make us wonder if the characters on Lost are trapped in a wrinkle in time of their own, or perhaps under the spell of some kind of psychic manipulation.”25 After discussing his theory, he concludes that whatever may transpire on the show, the book is still a worthwhile read. When the countdown to the series finale began in February 2010, he wrote:

It’s hard to believe that Lost will begin its final season with tonight’s premiere. Even harder to believe I’ve stuck with the commitment I made at the end of Season 2 . . . to read and blog about every book that appears or is referenced on the show. Now that I’ve finished reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection Everything that Rises Must Converge, I am caught up. That’s 38 books I’ve read to better understand this show, but it’s also 38 (mostly) really good books I’m glad I was encouraged to read.26

The show’s network was aware of their production’s literary value, and accordingly launched a Lost Book Club section on ABC.com to give fans insight on featured books—as well as to make them available for purchase, accompanied by a list of downloadable audiobooks on iTunes.27 In fact, one of Lost’s most ingenious marketing schemes was also its most metafictional moment. A character was seen reading a manuscript found in the plane wreckage: a detective novel called Bad Twin, written by fictional author Gary Troup. When viewers dashed to Amazon.com and actually found the book, the blurb stated that it was Troup’s last work before he disappeared on Oceanic Flight 815. Brush calls Bad Twin “a fun summer read that can be enjoyed without any knowledge of Lost because in their world and ours, it’s just a private eye book.”28 It is the story of a detective who is offered the case of his life when the chairman of a powerful corporation asks him to find his identical twin brother. For fans, there are enjoyable connections to the show to unearth, all part of the hypertextual Lost Experience, an “alternate reality game” (ARG) that involves a scavenger hunt of sorts to promote the show.

“ARGs teach participants how to navigate complex information environments and how to pool their knowledge and work together in teams to solve problems.”29 This is another example of media convergence, where a single entertainment franchise can sprawl across multiple media platforms30 and an integrated advisory approach can be applied. Despite Bad Twin being an advertising gimmick, Brush believes that the book helps educate readers about some of the literary and philosophical references in Lost. The protagonist has a friend who happens to be a literature professor and gives him information about books that is relevant to his investigation,

a boon to anyone trying to make sense of Lost but who doesn’t have the time or inclination to go off reading classic literature and seventeenth century philosophers . . . because it distils some of the key ideas that tie in with Lost.31

The book also has thematic parallels to the show, dealing with the recurring theme of purgatory (in fact, Gary Troup’s name is an anagram of the word purgatory). In addition, Bad Twin is set on several islands, including Manhattan, Long Island, Key West, and Cuba.

Watching a show so inextricably entwined with books can also facilitate the transition from TV viewer to reader. In a discussion of Slaughterhouse-Five on ONTD Lost Reads, one member commented, “The beginning confused me, I guess because I didn’t realize it was a story within a story kind of thing. The time jumps weren’t too hard for me to keep up with. I suppose Lost has gotten me used to that. Lol.”32 The fact that this community has more than one hundred members challenges the framework that “television is perceived as rather easy to understand; therefore, [viewers] invest less mental effort, and learn less well. Reading, on the other hand, is tough, and thus requires greater mental effort.”33 Such levels of involvement and engagement suggest “television’s power for cognitive exercise and intellectual development; whether such programmes trigger self-improvement or not, we cannot deny the mental pleasures of forensic fandom.”34

Collective and Convergent

Just as members of forensic fandom challenge the view of television as an inferior form of entertainment, reading groups contest “the customary view that reading is the act of an individual sitting down and reading a book. . . . People read in groups, and even individual reading is the result of collective memberships.”35 Any members of ONTD Lost Reads can volunteer themselves as discussion leaders. A leader is responsible for organizing reading schedules and creating three discussion posts per book: an open forum for in-progress reading, a finished discussion for after completion of the book, and a post exclusively for making parallels with the show on topics such as characters, themes, and symbolism. The diversity of Lost titles is different from the sort of best-selling literary fiction that comprises the majority of books chosen by traditional reading groups, but this falls in line with the idea that a book club “expands literary horizons by introducing you to new authors and unfamiliar genres you would never have read on your own,” as well as “provides helpful scaffolding in helping you stretch beyond your usual reading because you get a deeper understanding of the book when you talk with others about it.”36

In a media-rich world abundant with reading choices and yet afflicted by a lack of available leisure time, readers negotiate choice with the help of book recommendation programs—and sometimes these programs are primetime TV shows. “How they do this, how readers respond and which books they end up reading illustrates the complexity of contemporary reading practices.”37 Forensic fandom is not the only way to consume media, but “a growing number of consumers may be choosing their popular culture because of the opportunities it offers them to explore complex worlds and compare notes with others.”38 If libraries were to make efforts to delve into these hybrid cultures and better understand the mix of media, it would be akin to “tapping the combined expertise of these grassroots communities”39 and opening up new portals to readers, watchers, listeners, and other cultural omnivores. An integrated advisory approach can help libraries guide their users in this landscape:

More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium. The world is bigger than the film, bigger even than the franchise— since fan speculations and elaborations also expand the world in a variety of directions.40

As a TV show can inspire an interest in books, so too can books enhance the television experience. Cross-format advisory can benefit library workers, helping them to provide better service. Moyer’s handbook on integrated advisory service provides a starting point, with each chapter offering a different genre overview and a variety of examples. By working with all resources available, libraries can open up their entire collection, not just the ones librarians and patrons are already familiar with. In this way they will be able to make new introductions and connections. Since “the principles of integrated advisory can be applied to virtually any genre or reading interest,”41 different media are able to complement each other whatever the user is seeking, regardless of format and entertainment tastes.

Conclusion

The many differences between readers and non-readers, and the diverse preferences of ardent TV watchers and less dedicated viewers, are “enough to suggest that research into the impact of television on reading is too narrow an idea. There is more going on than just the relations between these two sometimes competing but often non-competing activities.”42 An online survey of Lost fans found that “the pleasures of surprise and the show’s uniqueness compared to other television shows were among the most cited rationales for watching, with over three-quarters of respondents highlighting these reasons.”43 As a Lost Books Challenge participant wrote, even though the show has ended, “there’s no reason that we can’t keep reading these fabulous books and figuring out how they fit into the larger picture of the story we have so loved.”44 All these factors contribute to Lost as a fascinating example of how TV viewing and reading stimulate and support one another, and also how more scholarly interest in televisual texts “can help posit television as a more legitimate and culturally validated medium.”45 Although “there are strong economic motives behind transmedia storytelling,”46 it cannot be denied that any narrative that holds meaning in different forms, drawing people to it in so many ways, is worthy of a closer look. An integrated advisory approach in libraries
can help users navigate this new and un-charted terrain, ensuring that they do not get lost—and even if they do, perhaps it is not so terrible a thing.

References

  1. Jessica E. Moyer, Integrated Advisory Service: Breaking through the Book Boundary to Better Serve Library Users (Santa Barbara, Calif: Libraries Unlimited, 2010), xii.
  2. William S. Hendon and R. Claude Hendon, “Barren My Wit? The Impact of Television on Reading,” Poetics 20, no. 4 (1991): 331.
  3. National Endowment for the Arts, “Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” NEA Research Reports, July 2004, accessed Sept. 12, 2011.
  4. Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, “Reading and the Reading Class in the Twenty-First Century,” Annual Review of Sociology 31, no. 1 (2005): 131.
  5. Wim Knulst and Gerbert Kraaykamp, “The Decline of Reading: Leisure Reading Trends in the Netherlands (1955–95),” The Netherlands’ Journal of Social Sciences 33, no. 2 (1997): 148.
  6. Wendy Griswold and Nathan Wright, “Wired and Well-Read,” in Society Online: The Internet in Context, ed. Philip N. Howard and Steve Jones (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2004), 206.
  7. Donald T. Searls, Nancy A. Mead, and Barbara Ward, “The Relationship of Students’ Reading Skills to TV Watching, Leisure Time Reading, and Homework,” Journal of Reading 29, no. 2 (1985): 160.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Griswold, McDonnell, and Wright, “Reading and the Reading Class,” 136.
  10. Ibid., 135.
  11. Catherine Ross, “The Company of Readers,” in Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals About Reading, Libraries, and Community, ed. Catherine S. Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette Rothbauer (Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2006), 20.
  12. Griswold, McDonnell, and Wright, “Reading and the Reading Class,” 137.
  13. Hendon and Hendon, “Barren My Wit?,” 326.
  14. Ibid., 325.
  15. Bill Spangler, “The Lost Book Club,” in Getting Lost: Survival, Baggage and Starting Over in J.J. Abrams’ Lost, ed. Orson Scott Card (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2006), 46.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Sharon M. Kaye, Lost and Philosophy: The Island Has Its Reasons (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2008).
  18. Jason Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies),” in Reading Lost, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 128.
  19. Roger Silverstone, “Let Us Then Return to the Murmuring of Everyday Practices: A Note on Michel de Certeau, Television and Everyday Life,” Theory, Culture & Society 6, no. 1 (1989): 80.
  20. Amy, “Sign up for the Lost Books Challenge!,” Lost Books Challenge blog, Jan. 18, 2009, accessed Sept. 2, 2011.
  21. Crystal, “Book Review: Of Mice and Men,” Lost Books Challenge blog, Mar. 24, 2009 , accessed Sept. 2, 2011.
  22. Amy, “Book Review: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Biory [sic] Casares,” Lost Books Challenge blog, Mar. 2, 2009, accessed Sept. 2, 2011.
  23. bookwormrach, “Island Overall Discussion Post,” ONTD Lost Reads blog, June 24, 2010, accessed Sept. 2, 2011.
  24. Ibid.
  25. James Brush, “The Lost Book Club: A Wrinkle in Time,” Coyote Mercury blog, June 20, 2006, accessed Sept. 2, 2011.
  26. Brush, “The Lost Book Club: Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Coyote Mercury blog, Feb. 2, 2010, accessed Sept. 2, 2011.
  27. ABC Medianet, “Lost Book Club Release,” Lostpedia: The Lost Encyclopedia, July 1, 2008, accessed Sept. 2, 2011.
  28. Brush, “The Lost Book Club: Bad Twin,” Coyote Mercury blog, July 11, 2006, accessed Sept. 2, 2011.
  29. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York Univ. Pr., 2008), 126.
  30. Ibid., 104.
  31. Brush, “The Lost Book Club: Bad Twin.”
  32. ada_bug, July 7, 2009, comment on spentayearinla, “Slaughterhouse-Five Discussion Post #2,” ONTD Lost Reads blog, July 6, 2009, accessed Sept. 2,
    2011.
  33. Susan B. Neuman, “The Displacement Effect: Assessing the Relation between Television Viewing and Reading Performance,” Reading Research Quarterly 23, no. 4 (1988): 438.
  34. Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story,” 129.
  35. Griswold, McDonnell, and Wright, “Reading and the Reading Class,” 132.
  36. Catherine Ross, “Adult Readers,” in Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community, ed. Catherine S. Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette Rothbauer (Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2006), 233.
  37. Denel R. Sedo, “Richard and Judy’s Book Club and Canada Reads: Readers, Books and Cultural Programming in a Digital Era,” Information, Communication & Society 11, no. 2 (2008): 203.
  38. Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 130.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid., 114.
  41. Moyer, Integrated Advisory Service, xiii.
  42. Hendon and Hendon, “Barren My Wit?,” 338.
  43. Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story,” 134.
  44. Amy, “The Challenge Lives!,” Lost Books Challenge blog, May 23, 2010, accessed Sept. 2, 2011.
  45. Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story,” 136.
  46. Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 104.

 



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