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C-SPAN Writes Last Chapter Of 'Booknotes'

By Tommy Nguyen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page C01

In announcing the cancellation of "Booknotes" -- C-SPAN's popular author interview program -- yesterday, host Brian Lamb was haunted by the numbers. He spends 20 hours each week reading books in preparation for "Booknotes," he estimates. That's 1.8 years of his life that have been dedicated to reading since the show debuted April 2, 1989. Now he wants to reclaim some of that time for his personal life.

Has it come to this? The author-interviewer, arguably the most quirky and dedicated on television, the creator and curator of one of TV's few institutions for avid readers -- has he finally tired of books?

"I still love reading," says "Booknotes" host Brian Lamb. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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"Oh, that's not true -- I still love reading," Lamb says. "I've never missed a show in all these years. It's been great, but I also think it seemed, in many ways, like I was always studying for a semester exam every week. Even kids in school get the summers off. I just thought it was time to do something new."

The program -- which has featured guests ranging from Bill Clinton to Shelby Foote, from Roger Mudd to Michael Moore -- will be pulled Dec. 5, when "Booknotes" celebrates its 800th author interview.

"What? They're canceling 'Booknotes?' " says Barbara Meade, co-owner of the Politics and Prose book store on Connecticut Avenue, a mecca for a "Booknotes" kind of person. A candlelight vigil at the store has not been announced. "Well, our store customers have loved watching his interviews, and they've gotten very interested in a particular book after watching a show [on the book]. We hear from our customers that 'Booknotes' is the only thing they watch on TV. They're going to be very disappointed."

As word spread yesterday among book lovers, many remarked on the way the show's tone and mood could edge on the surreal. Some recall Lamb asking questions such as:

"What was it like running U.S. foreign policy?"

"Was Khrushchev a trustworthy man?"

"How much did you make when you were 23 years old?"

"What is buggery?" Lamb once asked author Martin Gilbert.

Lamb's idiosyncratic interview techniques were eulogized. "Lamb's show is the most strait-laced stream-of-consciousness bit of showbiz on a rigidly anti-showbiz outlet in the history of entertainment," said one author who did not wish to be identified because he had been a guest on the show.

Local literary agent Debra Grosvenor, who has seen many of her clients on the show (including Eleanor Clift and Steve Neal), says she'll miss it a great deal.

"It was fabulous," she says. "It seemed to be an unbiased discussion on that particular book, and Lamb comes across as a very intelligent reader. I don't think its [book sales] impact has ever been quantified in the industry, but we would always be thrilled when one of our authors got on the show."

On Dec. 12, "Booknotes" will be replaced by another interview program hosted by Lamb, tentatively called "Q&A," which will occasionally invite guests from the book world. More frequently, however, they will come from beyond. It's a bonus, says Lamb, if they come from the deep beyond.

"We really want to hear from new and exciting people who are not necessarily writing books, accomplished people from all walks of life," says Lamb, mentioning that politicians, journalists, doctors, scientists and historians will all be a part of his expanded Rolodex. A scenario he's counting on for the show's development sees him picking up the paper, turning to the back pages and finding a story on someone who has very little or no chance of making it on any other TV show. That's his new definition of a quality guest.

"There are 4,000 schools of higher learning in this country," Lamb says. "How many of those chancellors and presidents have you seen on TV? How many of them have interesting stories to tell? How about we just start with that?"

Lamb, founder and CEO of C-SPAN, says he also changed the show's focus because he has become a bit weary of the book promotion cycle: After publishing a book, an author will simply make the rounds and appear on many shows. "What really kept me and the show going all these years was this great opportunity to learn something new in my reading, meet new authors and pass along my unique experience to the audience," says Lamb. But since exclusive television appearances are so rare among authors, "it seems that I can't do that anymore. So if I do interviews with authors in the future, I'd rather talk to them outside of that sequence."

"Booknotes" will still survive on its Web site, where archives of the interviews will remain, and Lamb insists that BookTV -- C-SPAN2's 48-hour programming on the weekends -- will see enhancements that will compensate for the loss of "Booknotes." Most likely viewers will see another interview show soon.

But Lamb wants everyone to get excited about his new show. "Because we're not governed by ratings on C-SPAN, we have the luxury to experiment," says Lamb. "We can be different and unusual."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company