Television could hardly survive without books as source material for its fictions as well as its facts. But books as such get very short shrift from the medium.
In the early days of KCET, Turnley Walker did a lively review program, further enriched by actors doing a kind of skeletal enactment of a scene from a novel under discussion. For a time, a Chicago book review show was visible locally. But more recently, the book shelf has been bare.
Then in January, PBS launched “Bookmark,” a discussion show hosted by Lewis Lapham, the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine, and featuring an author and one or two relevant guests.
Characteristically, the show locally is buried deep in ghetto time, at 9 a.m. Sunday morning on Channel 28. It is fundamentalist television: one spartan set (a large clockface is the backdrop for some reason), a table and talking heads.
But content, not form, is what we’re after, and the producers (Martha Elliott and Cynthia McFadden) have come up with consistently interesting guests. This Sunday’s author is E. L. Doctorow, talking about his new novel “Billy Bathgate” with Studs Terkel and Alice Turner, who is fiction editor of Playboy.
Billy is a Bronx lad who comes into the employ of Dutch Schultz, thus providing the author with an unusual coming-of-age story to tell, along with some observations on the gangster ‘30s.
Blandness is a lurking peril in any thoughtful talk show, but Terkel keeps the proceedings lively with his enthusiastic comments on the Al Capone days in Chicago. He makes things, well, conversational.
Latham is a personable and comfortable host, although it would be provocative for once to have a guest with strong reservations about the book at hand.
The next guest will be Margaret Atwood, talking about “Cat’s Eye” with Erica Jong and Jay Parini. After that (March 19), Louis Auchincloss will discuss “Fellow Passengers” with Tom Wolfe and Fran Lebowitz.
“Bookmark” is a fragile beachhead on the unbookish shores of television. It is likely to hold only if the corporate grantor (Bell Atlantic, in this case) concludes that a good image goeth before ratings. Those might be marginally improved here if KCET found a slightly less austere time-slot.