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Watch what you read: C-SPAN2's weekends belong to Book TV

Sunday, January 18, 2004

By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Riddle me this:

When Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly traded insults at the booksellers' convention in Los Angeles last summer, I was there.

When Anne Lamott encouraged writers at a literary festival in Peoria to carry an index card in their back pockets so they could capture those fleeting bits of overheard dialogue, I was there.

When the ebullient author and educator Esme Codell showed adults how to get children to love reading -- and held her audience spellbound with her dramatic reading of the children's book "Here Comes the Cat!" at an Illinois bookshop -- I was there.

So, who am I, Zelda Zelig?

No, just another happy devotee of Book TV, which for the past five years has brought the world of nonfiction books into my living room, kitchen and bedrooms. I have cooked dinner with Robert Caro, sorted socks with Joan Didion, painted the woodwork with Camille Paglia.

I'm a little agog at the number of friends and acquaintances who still respond with blank looks when I start babbling about the bounty that is Book TV, even though it celebrated its fifth anniversary last fall. There is intelligent life on television, I assure them, and its name is Book TV.

From 8 a.m. Saturday until 8 a.m. Monday, C-SPAN2 becomes Book TV, the magic carpet that has taken me to book festivals in Miami, Harlem, Austin, Nashville, Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. I have sat in on rare-book auctions, visited for hours at a time with authors whose work I've long admired and been introduced to many more.

Like lots of working mothers with full-time families, I can't devote as many hours to reading as I did when I was a teenage bookworm. For me, Book TV has been the perfect solution: a way to keep up with the world of ideas and stay on track at home. It also helps me make decisions about what books might be worth my time and money.

Lamott's "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" made the cut; O'Reilly and Franken didn't, but that hasn't kept them off the top of The New York Times bestsellers list -- no doubt propelled in part by the fracas covered on Book TV. It had the only cameras there when Franken called O'Reilly a liar, O'Reilly called Franken an idiot, and Molly Ivins tried gamely to referee.

"We got a lot of response from that," said Book TV executive producer Connie Doebele, "and that's the last thing we had planned."

Most Book TV events are way more civilized and contribute mightily to the rolling national conversation begun by its parent network.

Book TV was the brainchild of C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb and Susan Swain, who are the company's co-chief executive officers. Lamb, a former cable industry trade reporter, saw the system's potential early on. In 25 years, C-SPAN has given Americans unprecedented, unfiltered access to Senate proceedings and also, through its travels, to town meetings and to the historic sites associated with dozens of American presidents and writers.

Book TV, you might say, is a logical extension.

"I believe it is the only television network-within-a-network that was born out of frustration," Doebele said. "All of these books were being published every year. Reporters and authors were spending years on one book, and we only had one avenue to put 52 books a year on the air, and that was 'Booknotes.' "

Lamb's one-on-one, hourlong "Book-notes" sessions with authors, begun in 1989, are revelatory, thanks to his persistence, skepticism and such disarmingly simple questions as "What were your parents like? What did they do?"

Now, "Booknotes" is just one part of the Book TV lineup, which also includes "History on Book TV," "Public Lives" (featuring biographies of public figures) and "In Depth," a live, monthly, three-hour interview with a single author. Call-ins are encouraged, putting writers in touch with their readers.

Book TV features about 2,000 authors annually, speaking at bookstores, book festivals, campuses, private clubs and other venues. Most are on book tours, promoting newly published work.

"A lot of the people we put on are not household names," Doebele said. "We enjoy having David McCullough on several times a year, but there are other people who need to be looked at."

On occasional Saturday mornings, Book TV also covers children's books.

"Of everything we started doing, that was probably the biggest experiment," Doebele said. "It's been a much bigger challenge for us than I thought it would be," because so much depends on the reaction of the children, who may or may not be engaged by the author.

"My job is also to make sure this is good television," she said, and with children's books "it's just a little bit more of a crap shoot."

Even the children's books featured on Book TV are nonfiction, in keeping with the public affairs nature of C-SPAN's programming but "much to the chagrin of some of our viewers," said Doebele, who grew up on a cattle and wheat farm outside Hanover, Kan., population 900. The family moved to town when she was 17, and her mother eventually became Hanover's mayor.

When Doebele is listening to her staff pitch books, it's her mother who often pops into her head as she decides which to cover. When she asks herself "Would Mom like this?" Doebele said, she's thinking about "a group of people who are smart and interesting and don't have a lot of access to these kinds of books."

As C-SPAN's coverage is weighted toward government, politics and history, so are the books on Book TV. But the topics also can be wide-ranging: Last weekend, the schedule included books about Henry Ford and the genealogy of Greek mythology. And at Manhattan's Zinc Bar, the very cool Maggie Balistreri -- whose talk on "The Evasion-English Dictionary," in which she decodes the use and abuse of words and phrases like "like," "whatever" and "oh well" -- was an "SNL"-worthy stand-up gig.

It also featured Pittsburgh native and Waynesburg College history professor Todd DePastino, who discussed the cultural influence (and definitions) of tramps, hobos and bums in a talk about his new book, "Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America," in Waynesburg.

And at 11 p.m. Jan. 31 and 8 p.m. Feb. 1, Book TV will feature Franklin Toker's illustrated talk about his book, "Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann and America's Most Extraordinary House." Book TV will videotape him Jan. 28 at the Smithsonian.

"The choice of the venue is the key thing that we do," Doebele said. "It's where we can make a difference. The quality of the venue can change everything because it changes the Q & A."

Doebele looks for the location that will attract a knowledgeable audience likely to ask the most pointed, informed questions. For Caroline Alexander's talk on her book "The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty," for example, Book TV went to the Explorer's Club in New York City.

But it passed up the big cities where Canadian journalist Jack Todd discussed his first-person book, "Desertion: In the Time of Vietnam" to tape him in Scottsbluff, Neb., the hometown he hadn't been to in more than five years.

"My biggest regret was that we only sent one camera," Doebele said. "We needed two cameras, to catch the faces."

Most of Book TV's single-author events are shot with one camera by freelance crews. Doebele and her staff of six -- two producers, an associate producer, two production assistants and a photojournalist -- stretch their $600,000 annual programming allowance with such frugalities.

Book TV's photojournalist is longtime C-SPAN employee Richard Hall, who grew up in Friedens, Somerset County. Recently he took viewers on a tour of the unparalleled H. P. Kraus Reference Library in Manhattan before it was sold to Sotheby's.

Hans Peter Kraus started his rare book business in Austria in 1932. Six years later it was seized by the Nazis. Kraus arrived in America on Columbus Day 1939; it also happened to be Kraus' birthday, which he took as a good omen. Of course, it didn't hurt that he carried with him a small book written by Columbus and printed in the 15th century, which helped launch his new business.

After Kraus died in 1988, his wife ran the shop until her own death in January 2003. Hall interviewed their daughter, Mary Ann Folter, as well as Sotheby's Selby Kiffer and Joshua Lipton, who worked as Kraus' bibliographer for 24 years. Book collectors will appreciate that when Lipton displays and discusses a book, the price it sold for at auction is seen on the screen. The program repeats today at noon.

Since 1999, Book TV has produced more than 13,250 hours of original programming. That includes 80 hours of live programming, such as last weekend's panel discussion from the 118th annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C.

Attorney Annette Gordon-Reed (whose book on the Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson relationship led to DNA analysis that proved what the Hemings family had been saying for decades) and historian Joseph Ellis (who for years took the view that Jefferson wasn't the father of Hemings' children) had a polite and enlightening exchange. But Ellis couldn't resist calling Christopher Hitchens a son-of-a-bitch when his name came up on a different topic, then quickly amended it to "intelligent son-of-a-bitch," and almost as quickly apologized.

C-SPAN, a nonprofit network, doesn't rely on Nielsen ratings, but a 2001 survey showed 14 million Americans have watched Book TV. At least one of them keeps an index card in her back pocket, for all those memorable, telling and often unscripted Book TV moments.


Post-Gazette architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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