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Bookmark

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Last year Lewis Lapham dozed through his first season as host of Bookmark, rousing himself fitfully to growl at visiting authors about the decline of the American novel. Conceived as a chat show that would send viewers scurrying for high-quality literature, Bookmark instead only confirmed the philistine cliche that most authors are sleep-inducing pedants.

This season, however, they could retitle the show Lapham Comes Alive! The ditor of Harper’s magazine seems to have discovered a damn good cup of coffee: He’s bright-eyed and eager, and so media-savvy that I swear he looked into the camera a few weeks ago and winked.

On one recent show, Lapham did a terrific job of eliciting guest Stanley Crouch’s iconoclastic views on U.S. race relations. A big bear with crocodile eyes, essayist Crouch proved a first-rate TV presence, at once quick and cagey; someone should give him his own show.

This time Lapham would seem to have an even livelier topic: TV itself. Unfortunately his guests are television critic Ron Powers and educator Neil Postman. Powers is a guy who never lets you forget he once won a Pulitzer Prize; he mourns ”the decline of typography and the onslaught of the image” and accuses prime-time programming of being ”lurid, trivial, vicious, and debased.” And this was before he saw Twin Peaks.

Postman is the sort of academic who says that watching television is ”a privatizing experience” because ”other people are not copresent.” English translation: Lots of folks watch TV alone.

Even the new, sparkly Lewis ”Letterman” Lapham can’t coax a smile or a simple sentence out of these mopey theoreticians. If this edition of Bookmark is more thought-deadening than thought-provoking, it’s still entertaining as an unintentional parody of ivory-tower speculation. In general, however, Bookmark has straightened itself out and is well worth watching.