Monday, September 24

‘Bookworm’ works, wriggles to success


By Stephen Richardson

As a budding young bookworm, Michael Silverblatt was attempting
to wriggle away from reality, rather than toward enlightenment. But
since 1989, he has hosted KCRW-FM’s "Bookworm," a weekly program in
which he speaks with contemporary authors. Beginning this month,
the show will be broadcast nationally, and this former recluse
finds his lifelong passion for literature draws him back to society
- and vice versa.

In the past five years, Silverblatt has interviewed over 250
authors, including Norman Mailer, Carlos Fuentes, Joyce Carol
Oates, E.L. Doctorow and Alice Walker. In the coming weeks, the
show will feature Joseph Heller and John Irving. The popularity of
"Bookworm" has risen rapidly, and Silverblatt recently obtained a
grant to make the jump to National Public Radio.

Silverblatt didn’t start out in life being this popular. "I was
a very teased child," he says. "I was developmentally slow. I was
frequently called ‘retard.’ School and other people frightened me
… so I escaped into books."

Attending college in upstate New York, he studied literature
under visiting author/professors such as John Barth, Robert
Creeley, Leslie Fiedler and Michel Foucault. "What they were
teaching was passion," he says.

Given his East Coast roots, where book critics greet new writers
with the congeniality of razor wire, Silverblatt’s transition to
L.A. in his mid-20s was awkward. He recalls his surprise when
instead of applauding his vitriolic outbursts, bewildered friends
would "sit there looking at me like, ‘Why do you say that? What did
you do that for?’"

Though at first he found the West Coast attitude "passive or
foggy-minded," he soon saw that here was "a lifestyle that went
forward full-tilt and didn’t edit itself, didn’t censor itself with
what should and shouldn’t be done."

He has assimilated this freewheeling approach into his show. He
studiously avoids predictable, colorless questions that can turn a
tour-weary writer into a chattering automaton, so the dialogue is
often exuberant and always spontaneous. Authors leap at the chance
to discuss their work with Silverblatt, who seems not only to have
read everything they’ve written, but everything they’ve read, as
well.

"Bookworm" often covers obscure works by lesser-known writers,
but the host is adamant about the show’s relevance, even for those
who may never pick up some of the books being explored. "Most of
what you find on radio and T.V. is a repetition of things you’ve
already heard in some form or another, again and again, until you
come to believe that the world is smaller than your mind, because
everything you hear, you understand. I think it’s very dangerous to
only hear things you understand."

Anyone who thinks this sounds too highbrow has only to meet the
host. He enters the studio dressed like a very tall 8-year-old in a
KCRW T-shirt, baggy, brown and white striped shorts, black socks
and brown leather slip-ons. He sits and graciously relaxes his
guest until the opening theme comes up in the headphones and the
merits of reading are melodically extolled by Jiminy Cricket.

Silverblatt is characteristically candid about his hopes and
fears as "Bookworm" goes national. "I’m afraid that other places
will hear me and they’ll say, ‘Aagh! Can’t he come to the point?
What’s the name of the book? What’s the plot? Do they get married
in the end?’ They may want a much more directed thing, and I’ve
been trained by my life here to live in the turn of the moment as
it occurs."

He’s excited about the prospect of giving a wider forum to new
authors who get published but not publicized. "Books are often
about the way life goes wrong when it starts to hurt," he says.
"And maybe writers are alert to that because they are frequently
hurt by a culture that doesn’t love writing. Maybe they have access
to almost daily rejection and economic fear of a sort that’s very
central to daily American life."

The success of "Bookworm" has already brightened Silverblatt’s
life. In addition to the many authors he’s gotten to know, he is
frequently hailed in restaurants by fans who recognize his voice.
"Reading can be an anti-social life," he says. "Going public as a
bookworm has made me more of an available person in the world. I
meet people through the very thing that once removed me from
them."

RADIO: "Bookworm" airs Mondays at 2 p.m. on
KCRW, 89.9 FM.

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