Reading a book involves using your imagination in a way that watching television doesn't. I never have to wonder what The West Wing's President Bartlet might look like -- the image is right there in front of me -- but Alexander Perchov, the Ukrainian narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated, lives only in my head. (He's got bad teeth, but that's no surprise.) Nonfiction doesn't usually bring visions of characters to mind, but it does make me picture the author rifling through dusty archive boxes and madly Googling obscure terminology, searching for explanations to life's quandaries. (Atul Gawande's Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science was perhaps a bit more vivid than I'd prefer -- especially the essay about nausea -- but still profoundly fascinating.) I'm not saying that my version of a story would look better than what some producer puts up on the small screen; I accept that his visuals tell me more than words on the page ever could.
Or, at least, that's how it should be. Strangely, book-related television tells me infinitely less than reading, say, a novel. I've been watching a bunch of such shows lately -- from C-SPAN's Book TV and Booknotes to a program based in Santa Cruz called BookTV.net, and from television book clubs to book-related segments on regular TV -- and, frankly, a goodly number stink. Most are deadly dull, horridly produced, and not enlightening. There are, however, a couple of programs in other countries that I wish I could see regularly: BBC Four's Readers and Writers Roadshow and anything on Canada's Book Television (on "the world's first literary TV channel," also called Book Television). R&WR is everything our shows aren't -- handsomely produced, funny, engaging, and interesting -- and Book Television manages to make reading look hip. The two reveal what literary subjects on American TV could be, but aren't.
Most book television is either an author talking about her book or an author talking about someone else's book. C-SPAN's various shows -- all the Book TV variations (History, Public Lives, Children's) -- are a case in point. The nonprofit cable network devotes every weekend, from Saturday at 8 a.m. to Monday at 8 a.m., to shows about nonfiction titles. It's a worthy goal, unreached. Sometimes the program involves a filmed reading from some random bookstore or public event around the country (say, Charles Cerami talking about Jefferson's Great Gamble at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.); at other times, it's a festival panel (such as the shockingly unfunny "Southern Humor" from New Orleans' Tennessee Williams fest). I find live readings somewhat painful, with rare exceptions, but a canned reading is worse. Book TV also hosts Booknotes, an unedited hourlong conversation between the blank-slate host -- C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb -- and a writer. Let's just say I've never wished harder for commercials.
BookTV.net is a low-budget operation: two community-television cameras trained on a live reading (most at either the Bookshop Santa Cruz or the Capitola Book Café), with videos of same available for $20 on the Web site. The production is truly awful -- bad sound, bad lighting -- but at least the conversations are interesting. One show featured the sardonic editor of Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients and four of the anthology's participants, from a Ph.D. who provided a surprisingly thoughtful "taxonomy of tricks" ("What do clients want? Blow jobs, but you knew that") to a phone-sex operator who told the story of a stuttering regular caller who wanted to kill himself.
Another show presented Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn in conversation at a school in Berkeley. They may both be "listeners," as "welcomer" Alice Walker described them, but boy, can they talk. Their stories were self-deprecating (Zinn said, "I've copped out on a lot of things. A real revolutionary doesn't do that") and revealing (he told the tale of a waitress serving him and a black friend in the '60s while wearing a button that read "Never"). Even so, the tape started midsentence, the person introducing Walker was never identified, and the first half-hour of Terkel's speech was muddled -- until a tech guy fixed his mike. Is this really the best we can do?
TV book clubs have superior production values, but they couldn't be more stupid. After Oprah Winfrey suspended her show's fairly bright (if sappy) book club in April 2002, a bunch of other programs launched their own groups. There's Reading With Ripa on Live With Regis and Kelly, with the motto "light, frivolous, and fun," according to its dumb-as-a-post hostess. There's the Today show's Today Book Club, where the immensely perky Katie Couric slobbers all over John Updike, who looks about 100 years old, especially next to his literary pick, the vibrant ZZ Packer. On Good Morning America's Read This!, there's an emphasis on book clubs around the country. A New York Times story quotes an anonymous publishing executive who has this to say about the programs: "The morning shows don't pound away about the book. Oprah would announce it and keep talking about it." Gasp! Keep talking about a book? Must be dull.
Lit on regular TV fares a little better. Charlie Rose, on his eponymous talk show, hosts writers all the time, and he manages to make it clear that he's read the book (unlike most morning-show hosts) and finds it interesting. He asks intelligent questions that seem to arise from natural conversation, rather than a preset list. Jon Stewart had Caroline Kennedy on The Daily Show the other day, to discuss A Patriot's Handbook: Songs, Poems, Stories and Speeches Celebrating the Land We Love -- "The largest book we've ever discussed," he said, dropping the 688-page volume on his desk with a thud. Though much of the talk was about the size of the book ("I haven't read the whole thing, but I did hollow out a few pages, and I've been living in it for about three days"), his questions about her selections revealed some lively thinking.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised: Talking about books on the tube is like explaining a joke -- it kills the imagination. Besides, writers are solitary people; they're not designed to be on TV (despite the fact that CNN.com puts its book news under the heading "Showbiz"). But when I catch clips of the Readers and Writers Roadshow on the Beeb's Web site (www.bbc.co.uk), I'm amazed by their spirit and quality. A bit of one show featuring the wild-haired Yann Martel discussing Life of Pi shows him nearly berating an audience member for asking him why he felt comfortable "appropriating an Indian voice" in the novel. And when I see the stylish Web site for Book Television (www.booktelevision.com) -- which has the audacity to cover "all manifestations of the creative word," including sportswriting, screenwriting, and journalism -- it makes me whine, "I want my book TV!"
It seems to me that C-SPAN and its ilk take books too seriously. Yes, authors have done something that you and I will probably never do. Yes, they know a lot more about their subjects than we likely ever will. Yes, it's hard to say something funny about, say, the sinking of the Lusitania. But still. There's a way to make these shows interesting without making them "frivolous." Get out of the bookstore. Find feisty crowds. Ask embarrassing questions. Read the damn book. And don't be afraid to use television for what it is -- a visual medium, one that should look as good as it sounds.