'Booknotes’ End a Bummer

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The first Sunday in December will mark the demise of C-SPAN’s Booknotes, the Brian Lamb author-interview program that aired for 800 Sundays in a row.

The program’s celebrated 15-year odyssey is right up there with Gunsmoke, primetime TV’s longest-running series.

Lamb’s program was unique. With the major broadcast networks engaged in a reality-TV orgy, Booknotes was a monogamous affair, involving just Lamb and the author. The visitor could be someone famous, like former President Nixon, or totally obscure, like Gretchen Rubin, a former Federal Communications Commission official who created a multidimensional study of Winston Churchill.

NO GLITZ HERE

Thankfully, Booknotes was a glitz-free zone.

No matter the guest, the setting never changed: Interviews were taped in a two-seat studio draped in black; illumination consisted of a few spotlights; Lamb never introduced himself; commercials never interrupted; and 60 minutes really meant 60 minutes.

I don’t have mixed feelings about the end of Booknotes. I have one feeling: disappointment. Now in its 25th year, and a national treasure, C-SPAN should not be slamming the covers on Booknotes.

Instead, the network should be seeking new hosts to replace Lamb and perpetuate a program small in viewers but large in loyalty.

I can think of two people who consume books by the Gigabyte, who are comfortable on TV and who would be perfect for the job. One is Newt Gingrich; the other is George Will. Want a liberal? How about E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution? Want a woman? Lynne Cheney would be great.

REASONS UNCONVINCING

C-SPAN is a private company and can do what it wants. But I will say this: Sunday, Dec. 5, 2004 is a date which will live in cable-television infamy. As far as I can tell, the spoken and unspoken rationales for ending Booknotes are unconvincing.

Money can’t be an issue. In the early days, C-SPAN was held together by spit and bailing wire. Today, it has a $45 million income and runs three cable networks, a couple of Web sites and a D.C.-based FM radio station for Beltway commuters whose SUVs lack coaxial inputs.

There’s plenty of money to hire a new Booknotes host with serious literary credentials.

In a statement, Lamb argued that Booknotes consumed too much of his time. Evidently, he needed 20 hours to read a book and prepare questions.

I’m no speed reader, but I bet I can down a 360-page book in six hours, roughly a minute a page. Although that’s slow for the average bibliophile, it would still leave 14 hours to prepare questions and tape the program.

Anyone familiar with Lamb’s interview technique realizes that it can’t take a lot of time to think up something like, “Do you use a pen?”

Although we’re all short on time, Barnes & Noble knows that millions of people make time for the thing they love. Reading.

C-SPAN has forgotten the axiom that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.

But C-SPAN says Lamb has a new idea to fill the 8 p.m. timeslot. He wants to launch a show called Q&A, featuring a range of intellectuals ignored by Access Hollywood because they haven’t given Paris Hilton a tongue bath.

TALKERS IN EXCESS

Although Lamb is resourceful, I doubt cable needs another talk show, especially one laden with inward Mensa-types who will likely talk more about themselves than about something substantive. Like a new book.

The termination of Booknotes will be a dark day for cable in general and C-SPAN specifically. My guess is that Lamb got bored with the project and killed it.

Sadly, Lamb has broken faith with American readers who consider Booknotes their nexus to a history-writing legacy left by Henry Adams and Charles A. Beard, Henry Steele Commager and Samuel Flagg Bemis.

Booknotes is finished, but it’s not the end of the world, Cable’s Gift to America tells us. That’s because C-SPAN intends to warehouse the program in cyberspace, with video and transcripts from each hour session just a mouse click away.

Reruns, in other words. Thanks C-SPAN, but if I want reruns, I’ll watch Gunsmoke.

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