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C-Span’s School for Readers

ISSUE:  Summer 2000
Booknotes: Life Stories, Notable Biographers an the People Who Shaped America. Interviews by Brian Lamb. Times Books.$27.50 cloth, $17.00 paper.

For decades now, as Hollywood films and commercial television have come to dominate our non-athletic recreation, the big bad news has been the decline of reading. The very small good news, for the last decade at least, has been the increasing popularity on cable television of C-SPAN’s programs devoted to books, especially Booknotes on Sunday nights, when Brian Lamb, head of C-SPAN, interviews nonfiction writers for an hour. Some of us will remember that this program comes on at about the same time as the widely watched Ed, Sullivan and Sid Caesar shows of early live television, suggesting the establishment of at least one positive television tradition. On a companion channel, C-SPAN runs programs the entire weekend on publishing and book selling.

Booknotes celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1999 with the publication of a second book collecting transcripts of Lamb’s interviews. The first was Booknotes: America’s Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas (1997); the second is Booknotes: Life Stories, Notable Biographers on the People Who Shaped America. The first concentrated more on the nature of writing itself, listing contents by authors, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Francis Fukuyama, Daniel Boorstin, David Remnick, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., George Will, Colin Powell, Hanan Ashrawi, Hillary Rodham Clinton, William Rehnquist, and Margaret Thatcher. The second emphasizes the illustrious subjects, from George Washington to Bill Clinton but including also assorted celebrities like Katharine Graham and Lee Harvey Oswald, listing them by century, with only autobiographical volumes showing both subject and writer, like those by Graham, Anita Hill, and William F. Buckley, Jr. Both books contain charming photographs of many of the writers in informal settings, taken by Lamb. If we had to credit any one force with slowing what many see as an accelerated decline in serious book reading toward the end of the last century, C-SPAN’s book programs might be it. I would guess that not even Oprah Winfrey’s reading clubs, with their large membership, or cyberspace bookselling, with their massive sales, generate as much serious interest in the writing, publishing, selling, discussion, and, of course, the reading of books as C-SPAN does.

No polling authority supports this heroic estimate. Neither Nielsen nor Gallup has issued ratings of C-SPAN, but we have other good evidence that Booknotes has an impressive following, certainly for a program that remains uncompromisingly, unapologetically “educational.” After two 30-second announcements during its fifth anniversary broadcast, for example, offering to send commemorative book-marks to the first 500 viewers who mailed in stamped, self-addressed envelopes, ten thousand responses swamped C-SPAN’s offices. (The station was so flattered, and perhaps stunned, it sent out bookmarks to all ten thousand.)

And after Brian Lamb appeared on Don Imus’s morning radio talk show, registered a quick leap in computer generated sales of titles mentioned, a consequence as unlikely, considering what must be Imus’s down market demographics, as the visit itself by Lamb to Imus. No two men in television could be more different. Lamb is urbane, understated, soft-spoken, persistently polite, gentle in manner, blandly without pretension, always appearing in tie and dark suit, highbrow in allusiveness. Imus, a brash morning talk show host who affects an in-your-face, lowbrow bonhomie, normally wears cowboy garb and became nationally notorious after his coarse, aggressive insults of President and Mrs. Clinton at a Washington dinner.

The cable industry founded and supports C-SPAN (now also on FM radio) primarily to broadcast live sessions of Congress. C-SPAN never suspends regular programming for fund raising and has no advertising. When Congress is not in session, C-SPAN covers Congressional hearings and relevant associated activities, like speeches before the National Press Club and British Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Lamb’s use of C-SPAN’s resources to push books reflects his commitment to keeping cable television viewers and FM radio listeners reliably informed about ongoing serious political and intellectual activity. C-SPAN almost ostentatiously satisfies what one supposes is a rooted, widespread need for programming that does not dumb down political or intellectual content. It parallels the public affairs shows of public television, which has been known to resort to kitsch in other programming.

Although Booknotes has an obviously lofty intention, Lamb makes the program, with his dry, understated, and friendly questioning, as absorbing as any good, unhurried, freely ranging talk between two informed and articulate persons over an unstructured, unhurried dinner or lunch. (I think of that unique movie My Dinner with Andre, which was a straightforward filming of a conversation between long separated friends.) Lamb is unflaggingly attentive to his guest author, comfortably, genially deferential.

The appeal of the program inheres in its standard of presenting leisurely, unpredictable, not less than minimally intelligent inter-changes, which we are invited to overhear. I usually want the dialogue to go on, an appetite clearly to be satisfied only by reading the discussed book. I have found the program more consistently edifying than the sometimes densely compacted, awkwardly ambitious talk shows of Larry King and Charlie Rose, which depend on personages and strain for portentousness. Lamb lavishes no more attention on Tom Brokaw, NBC’s major news anchor, who was uncharacteristically edgy when I watched his appearance, or on David Brinkley, ABC’s retired majordomo, who remained magisterially unflappable, than on obscure and fidgeting professors from small state colleges. When the dialog on Booknotes hints at repetition or obscurity or self importance, Lamb easily changes the subject. He is as adept in respectfully drawing out a guest on serious matters as Barbara Walters, who pioneered in the probing examination of public figures on commercial television, is in extracting gossip and confession. Lamb remains inobtrusive, not competing or contending with a guest, not even raising an eyebrow or his voice to an insistently irritating one. Yet he rarely tosses out “softball” questions. One does not watch the “Lamb Show” because he has become a celebrity as we may do the King, Rose, and Walters shows. Impressively contributing to the civilized tone of the program is Lamb’s studied objectivity. In a New Yorker profile of him some years ago, he combatively defended the neutrality of C-SPAN at all times. Under his direction, C-SPAN is so determinedly impartial that the television screen, on mornings when political subjects are covered and viewers are invited to call in, lists three phone numbers for them to state their views: left, right, and center. The phone is meticulously answered in turn.

On Booknotes, Lamb’s questioning can sometimes be risibly deadpan and noncommittal as when he asks a writer to identify names that come up in passing, which most of the audience is likely to take for granted (like Trotsky, Gandhi, Father Coughlin, Himmler, or the Rosenbergs). He once asked an astonished British visitor who had just used the term “buggery” to define it.

Some of Lamb’s seemingly na?ve or disingenous questions elicit stumblingly novel responses as an otherwise articulate guest struggles to explain the obvious. Unlike some other radio and television interviewers, Lamb has carefully read the books under discussion and marked passages.

All this shows up satisfyingly in the two volumes Lamb has edited, which are as much a record of contemporary important nonfiction as of the ways of writing and publishing. The major shortcoming I find in the volumes is actually the condensation, often the deletion, of Lamb’s questions and comments. This restraint no doubt is due in measure to Lamb’s modesty but I think he has concluded that it is integral to underscoring the pleasure and profit to be derived from the unmediated reading of full texts. I missed Lamb’s subtle, responsive prompting of his guests about their works and themselves.

His probing for the mundane, practical details of writing (When do you write? How? Do you use fountain pen or computer? Where? At home or at a library or office? How many words a day? How long did the book take? How did you do your research? Who helped you? How many copies have been sold?) reflects the dedicated enthusiast’s admiration of any specialist’s professionalism.

Typical is the response of Forrest McDonald, author of The American Presidency: An Intellectual History: “The key to turning out good stuff is rewriting. The key to grinding it out is consistency. It sounds silly, but if you write four pages a day, you’ve written 1,200 pages in a year—or 1,400, whatever it is. You accumulate the stuff. So what I normally do is give myself quotas.” And Christopher Hitchens’s more self-conscious, somehow pretentious response, author of For the Sake of Argument: “I sometimes write in bars in the afternoons. I go out and find a corner of a bar. If the noise isn’t directed at me—in other words, there’s not a phone ringing or a baby crying or something—I quite like it if the jukebox is on and people are shouting the odds about a sports game. I just hunch over a bottle in the corner. I write in longhand anyway, so I can do it anywhere— sometimes in airport terminals. Then when I’ve got enough down, I start to type it out, editing it as I go. I don’t use any of the new technology stuff.”

Booknotes stimulates serious speculation as to why reading today has sunk to such a low in the history of literacy and why only its contemporary archenemy, television, may keep it from altogether expiring. Of course, lamentation about the end of reading goes back to the sacking of the libraries at Alexandria, maybe further. Over the centuries, the successive appearance of the phonograph, radio, film, television, computers took up more and more discretionary time in the Western world. Each produced its own Luddites bewailing the curse of progress. Even the invention of printing generated regret over the disappearance of hand copying of manuscripts. Remember too the snobbish sniffing over mass publication of recondite titles in paperback.

Writing and reading, in one way or another, have survived. They simply change character. For one thing, we have cultivated ingenious, adjustable responses to the infinitely protean stresses of daily living. Among other recourses, we have learned to read in short takes. If less can’t always be more, it can often be nearly as much. Established magazines and newspapers retain their readerships and values as they keep sensibly accommodating, with bare compromise, to changing needs and expectations; and new publications keep appearing to satisfy them. It is too early to say, but computers themselves may be supplementing paper-based reading as monitors display new magazines (like Slate), selected contents of newspapers and magazines, and first chapters of books, which, incidentally, Booknotes does on its Web site.

I came on C-SPAN while surfing Sunday night cable, but it has become the only program that can compete with my recreational reading of literate journals and university press books or with ruminative, freely ranging conversation. These two Booknotes volumes now offer a permanent, hard copy source to revisit memorable, genuinely intellectual television moments.


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