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April 11, 2007

Who's the Mack?

Every once in a while, I will read something that seems uniquely precise in describing aspects of my own condition. A piece from early last fall by Jerome Weeks -- at that point book critic for the Dallas Morning News -- was very much a case of that happening:

As Mark Twain observed, anything you're not obliged to do is play. Anything else is work. And as a book journalist, one is obliged to race after the Media Now-Now-Now - what critic David Denby once called "information without knowledge, opinions without principles, instincts without beliefs."

What's more, book culture may seem a dwindling, quaint endeavor to advertisers in mad pursuit of illiterate teens and at a time when arts coverage in general is getting dumped or fragmented into a million Web sites. But there are hundreds of thousands more new books released per year than TV shows, sports programs, movies or CDs. For all the talk of the death of print, more people have access to more books now than at any time in history.

That's amazing but it means keeping up is a full-time sprint. A book columnist must read in gross tonnage, read hastily in trains, planes and lunch lines and read books no one should bother with. One can endure a film or a concert for two hours; reading a pointless book can take days. Recall those dreaded high school assignments: A bad book can seem like a prison sentence.

I know, I know. You spend your time heroically putting out fires and saving lives in the ER. All of this reading doesn't really sound like work to you. But it is. Otherwise, we wouldn't pay researchers, law clerks, teachers or librarians.

OK, so we don't pay them much....

This was writen as a farewell column at the Morning News, but the editors there wouldn't print it -- a gutless decision, even for the Morning Snooze, and one more sign of how bad things are. Instead, it ran at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, which over the past year or so has become the inside-baseball site for American literary journalism.

Weeks now blogs at Book/Daddy (think "mack daddy of books"). He just gave an interview to LitMinds, in which he mentions being "in development" with an idea he has for a new kind of TV show about books. Sort of a cross between Stephen Colbert and Bernard Pivot:

The inspiration came partly from frustration over the less than zero that commercial radio and cable TV do with arts and literature in America -- compared to European media. You can target educated, affluent viewers, but once channels like A&E and Bravo get bought by bigger media companies, they start aiming for the same wide, illiterate, American Idol audience everyone else does. You could probably make money with such a book show, but for the media guys, it'll never be enough money.

....Literature does not always have to be treated as a BookTV snoozefest. Books and wit and rewarding journalism are not incompatible it would seem. Canadian TV has Open Book, an amusing show with an actual comic actress, Mary Walsh, as host to a weekly ad hoc book club. Sort of Bill Maher but with guests who've done the required reading.

....Because I don't live in Manhattan or LA and I don't lunch regularly at the Four Seasons with the big media dogs, no one's paying attention. I may have to try shooting a no-budget prototype with a webcam or something.

Great. More unpaid work.

Well at least it's an option now. No need for it to look like cable-access show from 1983, and the audience could be very large, if not network-TV huge.

Unfortunately a pitch line like " a cross between Stephen Colbert and Bernard Pivot" probably won't help him raise a dime, but it's the best I can think up.

(crossposted at Crooked Timber)

Posted by smclemee at April 11, 2007 6:22 AM


Yes book lovers definitely could do with some great book t.v if you ask me. I believe that books are just going to get bigger and this whole debate about print disappearing doesn't make sense just yet.

I mean books are going tech-savvy. If you check out these Video Book reviews you'll know what I mean.

Posted by: Sylvia at April 13, 2007 1:07 AM