tube junkie Fails to Make Dan Menaker the Letterman of Books

Watching the early-March debut of, a well-publicized Internet-only talk show devoted to “passionate conversations about books,” brought to mind when a nerd asks the most popular girl to dance at his high-school prom. Former Random House executive editor (and novelist) Dan Menaker was an oh-so-earnest cross between Bernard Pivot and Charlie Rose, relying on cue cards and marked passages to force chemistry between awkwardly chosen quartets of writers squirming in uncomfortable chairs. The camera work favored bald spots, eye rolls, and bored reaction shots. But as painful as it was to watch episodes one and two, a promised format revamp for episode three had us rooting for a nerd triumph.

That didn’t quite happen – Menaker’s adoption of an earpiece to help him with questions gave him away, the uncomfortable chairs are still around, and the opening B-roll montage was downright amateurish — but episode three’s nonfiction focus is a marked improvement. The well-honed gab gifts of David Hadju and David Gilmour needed only slight prompting from the host, while Louis Masur’s eloquent discussion of a shocking 1976 photograph of flag-induced assault accomplished its job in making us want to get a copy of his book immediately. But Mary Roach seemed out of place; her frank talk of female orgasms and penile pricking devices elicited visible gulps and nervous laughter from the otherwise all-male crowd. Perhaps Roach’s lone female status was a deliberate role reversal of Keith Gessen’s single-guy status in the previous episode, but the result had us wondering if the net effect was brave or belittling. Maybe someone should give her a talk show. —Sarah Weinman [Official site] Fails to Make Dan Menaker the Letterman of Books