Jewish World Review August 18, 2004 / 1 Elul, 5764
John H. Fund
Silence of the Lamb: C-SPAN cancels 'Booknotes'
After 15 years and 800 authors, "Booknotes," the weekly book interview show on C-SPAN hosted by Brian Lamb, is coming to an end. On Dec. 12, it will be replaced with a new show hosted by Mr. Lamb called "Q&A," which will seek out interesting achievers from all walks of life who might otherwise never get interviewed on television.
But just because Mr. Lamb will remain a C-SPAN fixture on Sunday nights doesn't mean that "Booknotes" won't be missed. "I think it's an enormous loss," says Warner Books president Jamie Raab. The interviews were in-depth, thoughtful and never flashy. Book lovers flocked to the show, and a "Booknotes" appearance became a must-do for authors ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mr. Lamb specializes in an interview style that features short and direct questions. He knows how to get out of the way so that authors can do what they like to do best: talk about their work. His questions, almost all centered on facts, draw out real opinions instead of stale sound-bites. Mr. Lamb would never say: "Do you think this fellow can be compared to Balzac's Rastignac?'" But he would ask: "Do you use a typewriter?"
Mr. Lamb's questions, although eliciting information, can be overly general: "What was it like running U.S. foreign policy?" Once in a while they delve into minutiae: "Why did you mention this person in the acknowledgments?" And sometimes the results are comical, as in a famous exchange between Mr. Lamb and Martin Gilbert, the leading biographer of Winston Churchill.
Mr. Gilbert mentioned in passing that when Churchill was a young soldier "he was accused of buggery." Mr. Lamb then evenly asked him to "define it, please." An agitated Mr. Gilbert was nonplussed: "Oh, dear. Well, I I'm sorry. I thought the word we buggery is what used to be called a the an unnatural act of the Oscar Wilde type is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British papers. It's you don't know what buggery is?"
Mr. Lamb may sometimes stumble into questions best left unasked, but he has taught authors the bottom-line value of talking intelligently about their books. Bill Clinton appeared on "Booknotes" in 1996 to discuss his "Between Hope and History," which bombed at the bookstores. When asked why it had failed, Mr. Clinton acknowledged the wisdom of critics who said that the book might have been priced too high ($16.95) for too little only 176 pages of big type. He also claimed to have learned that "books sell" when authors "talk about them and do interview shows like this." Mr. Clinton clearly took both lessons to heart. His memoirs weigh in at almost 1,000 pages, and he has become a fixture on the book-chat circuit.
Mr. Lamb is one of the few author interviewers who pride themselves on reading every word of the work they intend to discuss. Such discipline is rare. "He doesn't play golf, fish, or have hobbies he prepares for 'Booknotes,'" a C-SPAN spokesman said in 1996. Mr. Lamb estimates that he has spent 1.8 years of his life reading books for the series, and "it's time to use all those hours in other ways."
But "Booknotes" will live on. The interviews are preserved on C-SPAN's Web site and include nonpolitical gems such as a discussion with Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus, who wrote a journal of reflections on his battle with a tumor that almost killed him. There are also four best-selling volumes of essays based on edited interviews with "Booknotes" authors.
But book lovers will still seek out fresh and intelligent discussions of books, and they'll have a place to go. "Booknotes" may soon be gone, but C-SPAN remains committed to running, every weekend, 48 hours of programming focusing on nonfiction books. (Speeches, debates, panel discussions and the like.) And there are other serious interviewers out there, of course, from talk-show hosts David Brudnoy and John Batchelor to Terry Gross of National Public Radio's "Fresh Air."
Ms. Gross's interests range more widely than Mr. Lamb's, to include pop singers and movie stars. But book authors are part of the mix. She has just published "All I Did Was Ask," a compilation of 40 of her interviews with all sorts of people, including tough-guy novelist Mickey Spillane. "Why did you want to be the first to kill off a female character?" she asks, referring to his first Mike Hammer novel, "I, the Jury." "Listen," he replies, "women can be as deadly as men can, anytime."
Now that "Booknotes" is fading to black, Mr. Lamb hopes that "somebody else will pick up the idea and go for it." Let's hope they do. Someone has to ask Mr. Spillane about his typewriter.
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©2001, John H. Fund