Sunday, May 18, 2003

May 18, 2003
Books in a Tube

Television and books -- it sounds like a match made in limbo, and it's true that watching most American television programming about books feels like a long wait in a small airport. Author interviews have been TV's only reliable way to convey one of the chief pleasures of reading, that sense of being caught up in a great conversation. But not all great authors are good talkers, and literary types of any sort are increasingly hard to find on talk shows.

It's not as if broadcasters haven't tried. Oprah Winfrey's book club, and the handful of televised clubs that replaced it when she decided to abandon it last year, aimed to recreate the experience of belonging to a reading group. But people join reading groups for social reasons as much as for literary ones, and watching a bunch of strangers chatting about this month's selection doesn't really scratch that itch. The participants always talk about the book in terms of how it makes them feel, a perfectly valid topic but not an especially interesting one when the feelings belong to someone you don't know and will never see again. The author, brought in to answer questions, invariably is asked, if the book is fiction, how much of the story is autobiographical and if there are plans to make it into a movie, or, if the book is nonfiction, how much research went into it. You don't gain a better understanding of any book from watching this sort of thing -- and you don't get to gossip or nosh on cookies, either.

The most substantial chunk of airtime devoted to books in this country is Book TV, the weekend programming on C-Span 2, a nonprofit cable channel underwritten, like C-Span, by contributions from the cable industry. (The main channel televises gavel-to-gavel coverage of sessions of Congress and political news programs.) Book TV deals only with nonfiction books, a policy so stringently observed that during recent coverage of the Los Angeles Festival of Books, Connie Doebele, the executive producer, approached a bookseller and pointedly asked, ''Can you show us some of the nonfiction books you've got on display here?'' as if anxious to avoid even a momentary shot of a novel. Perhaps these scruples have led to the surprisingly common assumption that the channel is required by law to avoid fiction. However, a spokeswoman for Book TV informed me that the nonfiction-only mandate is indeed discretionary and intended to jibe with the public affairs nature of C-Span at large.

Fair enough, but that doesn't account for the generally deadly nature of Book TV's programming. ''Nonfiction,'' in its eyes, consists almost entirely of ''Dad books,'' weighty tomes on American history and the lives of Great Men that make serviceable presents for your father when you just can't give him another tie. ''Booknotes,'' C-Span's author interview series presided over by the network's founder, Brian Lamb, epitomizes this preference. Lamb fixes his guest -- usually a policy wonk or moldering presidential biographer -- with his stony gaze and peppers this individual with questions betraying a peculiar quantitative frame of mind: How long did the book take to write? How old are you? What was the first print run? I'd be surprised if college students somewhere haven't created a drinking game in which you have to gulp down beer every time Lamb asks a question that can be answered (1) with a number or (2) by referring to the author's C.V.

The rest of Book TV's programming consists of filmed lectures, readings and panel discussions, unedited and sluggishly videotaped. It is prone to periods of cinema verite lassitude, as the camera lingers on people filing out of the room after an event is over while staffers pick up empty water bottles from the dais. Too many of the readings are just barely more animated than these Warholesque interludes. Still, Book TV can be informative in a spinachy sort of way, and even enjoyable, as long as you remember not to watch it. I spent a whole Saturday cleaning my apartment with the set tuned to C-Span 2 and seldom needed to glance at the screen. The secret to Book TV is that as TV, it's great radio.

Also on the good-for-you menu is ''Assignment Discovery: Great Books,'' a blend of commentary on and cheesy dramatizations of classic works, apparently aimed at high school students. The creators of these video Cliffs Notes seem keenly aware of adolescent tastes, and they could have called the series ''Great Books With Lots of Screaming in Them''; of the four episodes I've seen, three were about works -- Dante's ''Inferno,'' ''Metamorphosis,'' the stories of Edgar Allan Poe -- that afford ample opportunity to show images of shrieking faces shot through a fish-eye lens, not to mention the rats and the squirming insects.

Surprisingly, one of the most literate documentary series around is Bravo's ''Page to Screen,'' which is about how books have been translated to film. In the program about John Irving's ''Cider House Rules,'' for example, Irving, who wrote the film's screenplay, describes the novel's ''moral symmetry'' as making it particularly suitable for film adaptation and discusses the need to cut certain characters and tone down the flaws in others because extremes that work well in print can overwhelm on the screen. That's the kind of nuts-and-bolts formal analysis that even the best author interviews tend to bypass. But don't get too excited about ''Page to Screen.'' It's been canceled.

Even at its best, American TV regards reading as an elevating exercise we must be coaxed to with proffered snippets of Hollywood glamour, lurid teasers or appeals to our civic spirit. To find the reader's life depicted as rich, fun, varied and even hip, you have to partake of BookTelevision, a 24-hour digital cable channel headed up by Daniel Richler (son of Mordecai) and available only in Canada. The handful of BookTV tapes I've seen contain the expected talk show, but also news and magazine programs featuring stories about everything from government confiscation of underground comics to the ascendancy of fast food (pegged to Eric Schlosser's ''Fast Food Nation'') and a behind-the-scenes look at the tough-guy filmmaker Bruce MacDonald creating a ''tribute literary video'' to the poet Ann Carson. The producers go on location to Milan to interview the editor of Italian Vogue, and to Turkey to talk with writers who have been harassed by the government. All this is inventively visual, with the dead spots trimmed out and the rest spiced up with archival footage, evocative graphics and energetic music. The Canadians have proved that it can be done: I want my BookTV.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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