Stop reading that book -- go watch TV!
A new TV show called Open Book is one of the more attractive recent efforts to salvage book coverage in this country. Eschewing the usual talking heads approach (Zzzzzz), Open Book packages author interviews in beautifully filmed segments, directed by Diane Paragas, that show writers walking around outdoors, staring off wistfully, and reading from their work against mood music and artsy clips.
(The first 30-minute episode was released this week on Link TV -- DIRECTV channel 375 and DISH Network channel 9410 -- but I watched it on the Internet.)
The show's conceit is its emphasis on place. Each episode will focus on a particular location, presenting authors who live or write about it -- or lived and wrote about it. This first episode, for instance, is all about the Fort Green neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. We hear from the memoirist Ishmael Beah, novelist Jennifer Egan and poet Suheir Hammad. And there are some distant voices too. Carl Hancock Rux reads from Henry Miller's "Tropic of Capricorn," Jeffrey Wright delivers a passage from Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and in a particularly lovely segment, a Whitman impersonator talks about his decades of devotion to the the author of "Song of Myself."
The show is a labor of love created and hosted by Ina Howard-Parker, who worked for years as a publicist and editor for progressive publishers like Nation Books and The New Press. Talking with me yesterday by phone, she said, "We hear so much about how young people don't want to read, and I just felt if we could translate what I feel for books - the passion and engagement and color - into broadcast media that could go viral, then maybe we could get people back to books."
She's not unaware of how quixotic that sounds. Funding is obviously a major challenge. (See: Collapse of Publishing World.) Now that the first episode is out, though, she's hoping to raise $1 million for 12 more, each one filmed in a different part of the world. The Surdna Foundation, The Philadelphia Foundation and her own strategic communications agency Represent, Inc., put up the seed money for Open Book's trim staff of six people.
Future episodes might include freelance video submissions from people in other countries. Ms. Howard-Parker says she's guided by the spirit of Studs Terkel, whom she worked with at The New Press. "I really try to keep his ethos involved, which is to treat everybody like they're important, whether they've been credentialed by the system or not. There could be a shopkeeper in Lagos who just happens to be an incredible poet. Or a book reading in Wyoming that we didn't happen to make it to. There's so much culture going on around the world that it would be a shame not to take advantage of it."
I found the first episode a bit too earnest in parts, particularly when it slips into the advertising lingo of self-affirmation: "Open Book is about you.... We each have the potential to change the world we live in." But the show's just beginning to find its voice, and if it can strike the right balance between marketing authors and exploring their work, it might provide something really engaging.
Footage for a second episode has been shot, but no air date has been set yet.
"I'm just trying to do my piece to help save publishing," Howard-Parker says. Let's hope she and lots of other people succeed.
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Posted by: shatarsky | May 13, 2009 9:30 PM
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