August 12, 2004
Reality TVBy Matthew May
C—SPAN founder, CEO, and host Brian Lamb has decided to discontinue the hour—long weekly program Booknotes in December, after 15 years and 800 interviews. Our loss is Lamb's gain, as he estimates that he has devoted nearly two years of his life reading the books by the authors that have been featured on the program. Preparation for one show requires 20 hours of reading and formulating queries on Lamb's part. Booknotes will yield to a new program called Q&A.
Booknotes is one of the best programs on television, and certainly the best regarding the world of books. Coming as it does on Sunday evenings at 8:00 eastern, it is an oasis of calm after struggling through an hour of 60 Minutes. Lamb, who is often mistaken in airports for John Glenn or John McCain, is the no—nonsense host, asking questions of the featured author for an hour. Mostly Lamb listens and allows the writer to talk. The set of Booknotes is as unpretentious and relaxed as its host. The simple black background, two chairs, two coffee cups, and one neatly Pledged coffee table is straight out of a local cable access show. The graphics are in keeping with C—SPAN's minimalist tradition.
While the first Booknotes program featured former President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Booknotes format emerged after a three—part interview Lamb conducted with Neil Sheehan regarding Sheehan's book 'Bright Shining Lie.' The response from viewers was positive, and the longest—running television program devoted to books was born.
Lamb's interviewing style is straightforward, and he employs the same techniques he used as cub reporter for WASK—AM radio in Lafayette, Indiana, during his days in high school and college. Basic questions such as 'Who was Abraham Lincoln?' and 'Where do you do your writing?' turn into long, thoughtful answers and lead in fascinating directions. Lamb's questions sometimes sound downright silly in their simplicity, but often reveal the care he takes while reading the featured book. The format allows the author to expand on parts of the book and the writing process he or she otherwise would not be allowed.
Booknotes allows the viewing audience to get more insight into the wonderful kaleidoscope of personalities who write about history and current events. We saw Dr. Cornel West in his three—piece W.E.B. DuBois costume discuss 'the men—dacity' of this or that social injustice, and a fascinating two—part interview with Richard Nixon, who took his post—Presidential writing as seriously as Lamb takes his reading. Just last Sunday evening, Maureen Dowd talked about her new anti—Bush compilation in a cynical monotone that made it easy to understand why she sent Michael Douglas scurrying to Wales to court Catherine Zeta—Jones.
Most every Sunday, we are introduced to books and authors that just aren't sexy enough for networks, but whose cultural significance obviously dwarfs the latest autobiography from a stand—up comic.
Sometimes the show delightfully shatters the unintentional comedy meter. The most famous example among C—SPAN cultists was when Lamb interviewed Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert in 1991:
GILBERT: When Churchill was 20 and a young soldier, he was accused of buggery, and you know that's a terrible accusation. Well, he ended up prime minister for just quite a long time.
LAMB: Why was he accused of buggery, and what it is?
GILBERT: You don't know what buggery is?
LAMB: Define it, please.
GILBERT: Oh, dear. Sorry, I thought the world would —— buggery is what used to be called "an unnatural act of the Oscar Wilde type," is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British paper. You don't know what buggery is? It's a very nasty thing which men can do to each other.
That's just not the kind of thing you would get in Oprah's Book Club. Nor would Oprah ever have any serious author like Gilbert, Abigail Thernstrom, or Robert Remini on her show. Serious books by public figures or historians are usually ignored or glossed over on the networks, either in concert with the parent company (60 Minutes and books by Bob Woodward and Richard Clarke), or in vapid interviews with Katie and Matt, and usually only if Katie gets to call Ronald Reagan 'an airhead.' Often we are treated to the ridiculous spectacle of Tim Russert interviewing Tom Brokaw about Brokaw's book, and Brokaw interviewing Russert about Russert's book, and so on.
While Q&A will surely be interesting in its own right, there will never be anything like 'Booknotes.' After the last show, Sunday nights will be a bit emptier and delaying the inevitable march to Monday morning won't be as fun. If you haven't already, catch 'Booknotes' while you still can, and remember to thank Brian Lamb for carving out a little piece of television sanity and shining the spotlight on authors and writers. Like his show and his network, Lamb is the genuine article.
(The writer is, like Brian Lamb, a graduate of Purdue University, and spent over two years as a researcher with the C—SPAN Archives in West Lafayette, Indiana.)
Matthew May is a freelance writer, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org