John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

In Brian Lamb’s ‘Booknotes’ marginalia, a record of our time’s serious thoughts

(Courtesy of George Mason University) - George Mason University librarian John Zenelis, far left, holding “A Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan, the show’s first guest; C-SPAN founder and “Booknotes” host Brian Lamb and George Mason University President Alan Merten, holding “Why Read?” by Mark Edmunson, the final guest. Brian Lamb donated the 801 books he read for the \"Booknotes\" program to George Mason University.

In 1998, when he was reading Ron Chernow’s “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. ,” he underlined the phrases “after she developed a chronic cough” and “a dark spot on Edith’s lower ribs” on Page 666.

Dog food. V-chip. Lower ribs. As for why Brian Lamb was moved to do this, that’s for future scholars to puzzle out.

And now they can, because earlier this week George Mason University took delivery of all 801 books that Brian read for the “Booknotes” author-interview program he hosted for 15 years on the cable channel he founded. The tomes take up five and a half bookcases in the university’s rare book collection. Most of the books are filled with marginalia in his neat cursive.

“Once Brian announced on air the program was coming to an end, I immediately resolved . . . that the next day I would get on it,” said John Zenelis, the university librarian.

That was in 2004. It took a while for Brian to be convinced there was any educational value to the books and his notes. The books aren’t rare, after all.

“This collection . . . is a snapshot of the intellectual fervor of the late 20th and early 21st century,” John said. “The ‘Booknotes’ collection itself is a very visible effort to elevate the public discourse in this country.”

The program, John said, gave viewers “a sense of who the important people were during this time in the United States, what they were thinking about, what their causes were, how this affected politics and public policy, and a whole range of issues.”

The irony is that Brian Lamb wasn’t much of a reader growing up. Neither of his parents had much time for books, he said when we talked on the phone. But he saw that books fit perfectly into C-SPAN’s mission, and so he embarked on a reading marathon, from the very first book — Neil Sheehan’s Vietnam War classic, “A Bright Shining Lie,” to the very last: Mark Edmundson’sWhy Read?

“I had a chair in my bedroom in my townhouse in Arlington,” Brian said. “I was single at the time, and it was just a place I could go and keep my books. I would often read early in the morning. I’d get up at 3 a.m. and start reading till 6 or 7.”

He had a lot of words to plow through, and if the scribblings in the books I looked at are any indication: He really read them. There are as many notes on the final pages as on the opening ones.

And that probably explains why he ended the program. “I hit the wall,” Brian said. “Reading a book a week was a tough slog.”

He didn’t want to write inside Maya Lin’s Boundaries” — it was too nice — so he jotted notes down on the envelope his Verizon bill came in (“hair down to my knees,” “geode,” as well as a phone number for “Henry in Naples”). Lin’s book, the envelope and two loose-leaf pages of notes are in the university collection. So are the liner notes from a John Coltrane CD Brian consulted during his interview with Cornel West.

Anything embarrassing scribbled in the books?, I asked. Did he scrawl “Awk!” next to a passage in Caspar Weinberger’s Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon”? Jot “You’ve lost me” in Robert Skidelsky’s John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 3: Fighting for Freedom, 1937-1946”?

No, Brian said. Like C-SPAN itself, his comments were bipartisan and nonconfrontational, designed merely to jog his memory during the interviews.

The books are arranged at GMU just as they were in Lamb’s Capitol Hill office: not according to subject matter or author, but in the order the shows aired. Thus, Maureen Dowd is sandwiched between John McCain and Dennis Hastert. The author interviews — videos and transcripts — are online. Now, with a grant from C-SPAN’s foundation, the books are being catalogued, the marginalia scrutinized and annotated.

“Who knows,” John said. “Maybe a few enterprising PhD students could also do dissertations, given the primary resources that exist here.”

Just try doing that with a Kindle.

 
Read what others are saying