I want my BookTV: Canada has proved a round-the-clock literary channel can be done well
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 March 2004)

Daniel Richler, boss of BookTelevision and host of its flagship program, Richler Ink, set out the other day to explain the literary significance of tattoos. It was a typical Richler performance, lowbrow and highbrow at the same time. This is the style Laura Miller wrote about with envy in The New York Times last year, when she insisted that American television should copy BookTelevision, the world's only round-the-clock literary channel, now in its third season.

In the U.S., she said, TV approaches reading in a books-are-good-for-you mood and assumes viewers must be coerced by glamour or appeals to civic spirit. But on Canada's BookTelevision she found "the reader's life depicted as rich, fun, varied and even hip," which is much closer to the truth. She ended: "The Canadians have proved that it can be done: I want my BookTV."

In his item on tattoos, Richler skated dangerously close to the pretentious but ended up making his point effectively. "Tattooing the body," he said, "is basically keeping a diary on flesh." That sounded preposterous until I listened to the people Richler had assembled. One typical client of a tattoo parlour acquired a tattoo of her favourite band because she was afraid she would forget her youth. We learned of a married couple who gave each other tattoos as wedding presents.

Richler was fascinated but unconverted. Since many of us find the diaries we wrote in youth embarrassing, he asked, why would people want to scrawl adolescent philosophies permanently on their bodies? "Do people want to be reminded how stupid they were for the rest of their lives, to keep themselves humble?" It may encourage fond reminiscence but how will it look on the retirement beaches of Florida in 2043? Richler's item made this subject more coherent than anything else I've come across.

Everything on BookTelevision must be somehow literary, but Richler treats "literary" as a highly elastic term. Movies and TV shows count if they were based on books, so The Wizard of Oz is eligible, and even Goldeneye. A great TV drama series, Homicide: Life on the Streets, began as a book, so BookTelevision has lately given us a chance to see it again and discover that it's just as good as it was in the 1990s.

But, aside from Richler's show and Rachel Giese's Word News, it's the archival material that brings the channel to life. Somehow, the more BookTelevision tells us about dead people, the more alive it feels. Documentaries describe Primo Levi's sense of tragedy, Robert Lowell's scatter gun poetic madness, Dylan Thomas's drunkenness and E.M. Forster's covert homosexuality.

These are (as second-hand stores sometimes say) "previously loved" items, therefore low-priced. That's necessary, because digital channels are television on the poverty line. Their managers are misers; if they weren't they would already be out of business. BookTelevision may have nearly 600,000 homes hooked up but no one knows how many of us actually watch it; the company can't even afford to measure its audience, so commercials bring in only modest fees. And the revenue stream from subscriptions amounts to no more than a trickle. Viewers pay about a dollar a month for the channel, but most of that stays with the cable company and the channel sees at best a third. Even so, Richler reports that BookTelevision is approaching the break-even point.

Poverty gives the channel an aura of mystery because there's no money for providing details, electronic or otherwise, about the programs. No one tells us what we're about to see, and even if we go to the Web site we often read no more than a general description of the program. This gives a visit to the channel some of the charm of venturing into an antiquarian bookstore whose owner is perpetually hoping to get the stock organized.

Last week, while getting dressed, I switched to BookTelevision (way up there at Rogers' Channel 169 in Toronto) and was delighted to find myself watching Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic of the 20th century, chatting with four other men, one of them a young Canadian painter, William Ronald. This was an edition of Fighting Words, a CBC panel series that loved to show Canadian viewers the major intellectuals of the world. It was a perfect Fighting Words -- Nathan Cohen, the chairman, was expansive and avuncular, Ronald was truculent and curt, and Greenberg was genial, articulate and mildly amused. A sweet little moment in history, now about 45 years old, and in itself well worth my March subscription fee.

Even when the online listings tell us who will be talking with whom, they rarely tell us when the conversation took place. It's as if they were ashamed of showing vintage material. They should be proud of their status as, among other things, a museum of literate television, displaying for us the findings of archaeological digs in obscure corners of program archives.

As it is, just learning the date of a program requires from the viewer a taste for research, a Canadian Who's Who, and a handy encyclopedia. When Joyce Davidson recently showed up interviewing Richard Rohmer, a novelist and biographer, I struggled to find the correct, even approximate, date. Finally Rohmer mentioned he was preparing two books, Periscope Red and Patton's Gap, for publication soon. Since Who's Who says the first appeared in 1980 and the second in 1981, this was either 1979 or 1980. Last Wednesday I watched an edition of Close-Up, an ancient CBC show, with J. Frank Willis introducing Charles Templeton's interview with Somerset Maugham, conducted in the garden of Maugham's Riviera home. Blinking like an old tortoise, Maugham did his best to answer the earnest questions of the former evangelist Templeton, such as "Do you think there is any purpose at the centre of existence?" ("I don't know.") Inadvertently, they dropped hints about the date their interview was shot. Templeton mentioned the Angry Young Men, a literary movement of the 1950s, still apparently vivid in memory, and a reference to Ernest Hemingway that assumed he was still alive. That made it 1961 or earlier. Finally Templeton mentioned Maugham's age, 84, which narrowed it down to 1958 or 1959. The puzzles of television are not limited to the game shows.

Like Laura Miller, I want my BookTelevision, but unlike her, I've got it.

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