Have you seen any good books on television lately? I know. Books are on TV all the time as adaptations, serializations or, in the eyes of many viewers, ruinations. If golf is a good walk spoiled, then TV shows swiped from the printed page can often be a good read spoiled.
There is, however, a network where books do not go to die. Every weekend, C-SPAN 2's Book TV dedicates 48 hours of programming to author interviews, panel discussions, book fairs, book signings, author readings and bookstore tours around the U.S. It may be as close as the book world can, or would want to, get to reality TV.
On Wednesdays, part of my job is to scroll through Book TV's upcoming schedule, compiling a list of programs that might be of interest to Shelf Awareness readers. And every Thursday morning, we feature a "This Weekend on Book TV" section. Imagine that: a network where books matter. Even as I wrote this column yesterday, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Ret.) was being interviewed live at the Free Library of Philadelphia about My Share of the Task: A Memoir.
C-SPAN and the book world have a long and mutually beneficial relationship. That iconic C-SPAN bus gets one of the best parking spots in New York City every year, inside the Javits Center near the entrance to BookExpo America. I pass by several times each day (and have the tote bags to prove it). I also watch Book TV programming regularly, and am particularly fond, for obvious reasons, of the featured bookstore events, like Saturday's visit to Santa Fe, N.Mex., where a stop at Collected Works Bookstore is on the itinerary.
It's always fun to get a "behind the scenes," or at least on the scene, peek at some great indie bookstores nationwide. Popular Book TV venues include Politics & Prose, Washington, D.C. (home field advantage); Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe Ariz.; Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass.; and Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo., but dozens of indies regularly get their moments on camera.
One thing I've noticed is that both C-SPAN and the indies have become more media sophisticated over the years, compared to early efforts during the 1990s when the bookshop where I worked would sometimes be a site for filming events. Production values were a bit shakier then, and the cameras tended to roll longer before and after a reading than perhaps was wise.
At the first C-SPAN event we hosted, for example, the last thing viewers saw was one of my fellow booksellers and her son making their exit from the back row by trying to sneak under the camera. Unfortunately, they tripped over each other instead, adding an unintended action sequence to the otherwise civilized episode.
Book TV is in a way the second-generation effort for the network, since C-SPAN's book genealogy really began with Booknotes, which ran from 1989 to 2004 and was hosted by the network's founder and CEO Brian Lamb, whose dry but direct interview style I found absolutely irresistible. Watching Lamb was like seeing a book version of Dragnet. His "just the facts, ma'am" style seemed to go against everything television stood for, and yet it worked precisely as he intended, keeping the spotlight on the writer being interviewed.
Mark Edmundson, author of Why Read, was the guest for the final episode of Booknotes. Inevitably, Lamb's first question was: "Why read?" He never shied away from asking for seemingly obvious information--the kind of clarification most of us wouldn't dare admit we didn't already know--as shown in this rapid fire sequence:
Give us an example.
What's a nihilist?
Where's that term come from?
On C-SPAN, reading and television find common ground. Consider the question Lamb asked Shelby Foote in 2001: "What is it about the written word that's either attractive to people or separates it from television?"
Foote's reply: "I really think that the written word is what defines us as superior creatures to all the other creatures on earth. Man is characterized by a number of things. One of them is he's the only animal that knows he's going to die some day. And knowing that, he also has an obligation to make the most of whatever time he has. And making the most of it is enormously assisted by reading, by learning about the world." Now that's great book TV.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1919.