You might think a channel dedicated entirely to books would be a good thing. You would be wrong.
Daniel Kalder, Guardian blogger.
There are many bizarre phenomena in this world that have yet to be adequately explained - the disappearances on board the Marie Celeste, the advanced astronomical knowledge of the Dogon tribe of Mali, people laughing at Little Britain - but few are as strange or inexplicable as the American cable channel Book TV.
Mercifully restricted to weekend broadcasts, it is quite possibly the worst channel in the US - worse than the KKK phone-ins and home-made comedy shows on cable access, worse even than C-Span, the non-stop live feed of all the men and women in Congress striving so selflessly to improve the lot of the rich. It's bad. Really bad.
Readers in the UK who have never seen it may think I exaggerate. Surely a TV station dedicated to books is a good thing, something of which America should be proud? The answer, alas, is no. Let us begin with the issue of production, which could not be more amateurish. Usually a programme on Book TV consists of a single camera pointed at an author talking and reading in a shop, which is then broadcast unedited, after which another single camera will be pointed at another author talking and reading in a shop, which will then be broadcast unedited, and so on and so on for about 48 hours. Book readings are of course dull and pointless affairs at the best of times, but there are a few authors who can chat entertainingly, perhaps even informatively, and tell amusing stories. Unfortunately none of them ever appear on Book TV.
Instead the channel lays emphasis on heavy tomes about history and politics, usually American, and if an author with knowledge of a foreign country appears then he will probably be interpreting it in relation to US foreign policy. The viewer is therefore treated to readings by smug academics flogging their most recent eruption of careerist logorrhea, books on the likes of Thomas Jefferson that will be read by no-one save their own unfortunate captive audience of undergraduates. Worse still are the sinister performances given by the shady denizens of Washington think tanks, peddling the fiction of their wisdom in yet another volume of solutions to the world's problems. These dodgy characters would of course be better employed wiping floors in a McDonald's. Fiction rarely appears; humour never. The programmers appear to have a weird, puritanical aversion to make-believe, a Gradgrindian faith in facts, and are out to prove that BOOKS ARE SERIOUS - something they do by being mercilessly dry, ruthlessly academic, and aggressively tedious.
When I discovered the channel I watched it quite regularly, though now I realise I was actually gaping in horror: like the first time I saw a bottled mutant baby at the Kunstkamera in St Petersburg, I was trying to persuade myself that the thing was real. It can't always be as bad as this, I thought. Something good will turn up eventually. It didn't; I stopped watching.
A weekend ago, however, I decided to check that it was still there, to make certain I hadn't dreamt the abomination. So I switched it on. A speccy child was talking about the year or so he had spent teaching English to Kurds. He mumbled some banalities and then started to read from the thrilling volume his experiences had led him to write. He was nervous and sniffed a lot, and stumbled over his words. He didn't have anything to say I hadn't guessed already. And then I started to experience a strange itch, a dark atavistic impulse. It took a while, but finally I recognised it: I wanted to steal his crisps. And throw his specs on the floor. But I couldn't, because he was several thousand miles away in Massachusetts. So I switched over to Bridezillas instead.
For the sake of literacy in the US, Book TV must be taken off the air. It exudes the stultifying atmosphere of the classroom, and promotes the noxious idea that there should be an element of punishment in reading, that it is a form of spiritual purification via suffering. Indeed, its approach to the written word is so joyless it can only serve to convince young and old alike that books really are boring and they're better off gazing at videos of tramps fighting or watching donkey porn. If I had more space I'd go further and argue that Book TV is killing children, that it is a manifestation of the reason why 50 million Americans live without health care, but alas I have reached my word count. Instead let me end by saying, pace Philip Larkin, that books may not be a load of crap, but Book TV certainly is.