Endnote on "Booknotes"

Between 1989 and 2004, Brian Lamb hosted the weekly C-SPAN television show "Booknotes," in which he spent an hour interviewing an author about one book. Recently Mr. Lamb donated his collection of the 801 annotated "Booknotes" books to the library at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. I'm happy to say The Illustrated Longitude counts among them. A few weeks ago the university's oral historians asked me to recall my experience on the program. I remember hoping to get a call from Mr. Lamb after Longitude was published in 1995, but he didn't reach out to me until The Illustrated Longitude appeared three years later. Our conversation about it aired on "Booknotes" on January 17, 1999. 

Friends addicted to "Booknotes" had warned me that Mr. Lamb often pursued odd points of fact, such as the type of pen a writer employed. That was fine with me. What I found truly unusual about him was his habit of careful reading and thorough preparation. I had survived radio interviews with hosts who had no idea who I was or what I had written, and who opened with a vague, "So, tell me about your book."

The most surprising question Mr. Lamb posed concerned the year of my father's death. I was so taken aback that for a moment I couldn't remember the date. I fared much better with questions about the chronometer story. And when Mr. Lamb inquired about Longitude's unexpected success, I mentioned I had been at a dance competition in Florida the day The New York Times ran its rave review, but that my editor, George Gibson, had gone out late at night in Manhattan to buy the next morning's newspaper, then telephoned me in Florida to read the review over the phone--twice.

Mr. Lamb steered the discussion back to my mention of "dance competition" and ballroom dancing in general. He seemed so interested that I couldn't resist asking him a question: "Are you a dancer, Brian?" He colored a bit and we changed the subject, but afterward, in the green room, he demonstrated an impressive turning box step. I salute him for that, as well as for creating a time capsule of the country's reading tastes at the turn of the current century.