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March 20, 1994|David Kipen

"I want my Booknet!" Or, in keeping with the enterprise's mission, perhaps "I must needs have my Booknet!" IL. Doctorow gets his way, this cry could soon resound in cable households all across the country. Less than a year from now, he and his partners plan to launch Booknet, the only 24-hour cable television channel devoted exclusively to books of all kinds.

Doctorow has few peers in his ability to place titles on bestseller lists and college reading lists with equal ease. Best known for novels set in America's past ("Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate," "World's Fair"), Doctorow now hopes Booknet can help assure the future of the dwindling American reading public. "I've grown more and more worried about the tremendous attraction and seduction of electronic and nonverbal communication," he says, "especially among young people. The idea of literate culture establishing a beachead on this new electronic planet is very, very important."

The plan is to devise a round-the-clock cable network that will encourage reading without substituting for it. Thirty-five different program formats include profiles, reviews, readings, interactive conversations with authors, newscasts keyed to books and publishing, writing workshops, and screenings of films adapted from famous novels--whose authors could then interrogate the filmmakers.

Arguably the most important programming on Booknet will be directed at viewers who can't read. "I think just the act of showing programs in which parents are reading to children is going to have an immense impact on family life in this country," Doctorow says. "There are millions of functionally illiterate adults in this country who will be able to study quietly in their own homes. Some of the people who can't read very well are quite embarrassed and can't bring themselves to go into a schoolroom to learn."

According to Doctorow, "It's when you get into local tv coverage that you run into problems. A lot of times authors are treated as celebrities, and the same questions are asked of them as would be asked of Cher. 'Did you ever dream when you were sitting up there in your garret that you were going to make $X million?' It really has nothing to do with writing. We hope to have interviewers who are themselves literate writers."

Booknet viewers will be able to buy any of the books mentioned on the air just by picking up the phone. Local bookstores are expected to advertise heavily. Doctorow's not trying to put publishers or bookstores out of business--just the opposite. "I happen to think that if this works, it's going to create a demand for bookstores where there is none now. We're very sensitive to the interests of independent booksellers. You know," Doctorow admits, "I love books. I like the feel of the book. The quality of the paper, and the design and weight of it, the heft of it--it's shamelessly erotic. I also think they're pretty advanced. They're an ancient technology, but they don't require the use of energy once they're produced. They don't radiate, they don't go down, and they're interactive."

Doctorow has a book of essays ("Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution") out this month and a novel, "The Water Works," due in May, but he claims Booknet is cutting into his writing time. Two books may seem like plenty for one spring, but both were well along before he started moonlighting as a cable mogul last year, and he's anxious to get back to his day job full time. "Once this is set up," he says, "I'm out of here. One of the things that astonishes me is what I've learned about business in the past six months. You have to go to a lot of meetings and take a lot of conference calls. And as a person who's worked most of his life alone, and who's not had to rely on anybody to get anything done except himself and maybe his typewriter repairman, I've been educated."

Of late Doctorow has become an expert on literary entrepreneurs past. Joyce, he's discovered, "wanted to get into the movie business. He thought running a movie theater was a terrific idea. Jack London started a grape juice company. Lost his shirt on that one. Writers have these odd flights in different directions, so I'm gathering stories for my own solace and consolation, as I go to yet another meeting."

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