Matthew Pinsker was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on February 13, 2015. Mr. Pinsker appeared on C-SPAN's Booknotes program on December 21, 2003, where he discussed his book, Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home.
Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtje, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is February 13, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Dr. Matthew Pinsker, who appeared on Booknotes on December 21, 2003, to discuss his book, Lincoln's Sanctuary, Abraham Lincoln and Soldier's Home. Hello, Dr. Pinsker, thank you for speaking with us today.
Hi, it's good to be here.
How did your book come to be on Booknotes?
Well, I'll be honest, it's a little bit of a mystery to me. You know, anything about Lincoln is a candidate for shows like Booknotes, but the truth is, you know, it was only my second book, and there was no guarantee that I would get that kind of exposure. The story, I think, is that the National Trust for Historic Preservation had commissioned the book, and a staffer there named Sophie Lynn, and a board member, Harold Holzer, I think they lobbied Brian Lamb personally and got his attention, but I really don't know, and I was just, you know, grateful to get the call.
And how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?
Well, the most important preparation was to turn over the wardrobe decisions to my wife and look at a bunch of ties and try to make sure that I was, you know, properly groomed. Otherwise, I just read and reread the book. I knew the show really well. I had been a fan of it, and of course, I was worried about, you know, what kind of oddball questions Brian might ask me, but otherwise, I was just, you know, excited to get on the show.
Well, were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's questions?
Well, I've been scratching my head trying to think about that. You know, in retrospect, I don't remember any specific question he asked me that show that surprised me, but I've appeared with him on a few of his other shows, different formats in the years since, and he always, you know, throws me for a loop with some crazy fact question, you know, that's legitimate, but not on, you know, anything that we had been either talking about or that I had written about, just an important question. And so, you know, it's the kind of thing that a curious person wants to know. He's very good at asking those questions. I don't remember him shaking me during the Booknotes interview with any of those, but I was certainly worried about it.
And what do you remember most from your appearance on the program?
Mostly, you know, I was a young history professor, just written the second book. It was just exciting, and I was nervous. But I also clearly remember how intense and intimidating Brian Lamb was. You know, he bears down on you, and you feel like you're in the box in one of those TV detective shows, and you start to feel the sweat creeping down your forehead. It's an imposing feeling.
Well, Booknotes hour-long format differed greatly from most other network television programs, which could last three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits or potential drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?
Well, this is definitely, it was definitely a show for readers. Anybody who's a serious reader appreciates the extra time. You know, I was the author on that show, and I felt like it flew by, but I know that that kind of time is precious, and, you know, like you said, you don't get interviews of that length. And so it just gives you a chance to cover a wide range of issues and speak with more detail than you would otherwise have a chance to do, and anybody who reads appreciates detail, and that's what Brian Lamb is a master of.
Judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. Do you find this kind of preparation to be normal for interviewers, and how did it change your interview experience?
Well, it's definitely abnormal in a good way. I mean, I've seen him ask authors questions about their own book, and it was clear he knew the material that they wrote better than they remembered it. And I was worried that would happen to me, but I don't think it did, but I was worried about it. And I could tell. He had read the book, you know, inside and out, and I saw the marginalia when I was sitting there. And so it was, you know, it's a great experience to have someone take that much time to review your work and take it seriously, and I was kind of floored by it.
Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe that the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting?
I think so. I'll tell you one thing, that's always the part of the interview that I was most interested in. As a writer, I was fascinated by other people's accounts of how they wrote. You know, it's always been hard for me to write, and I have always been interested in how other people do it. I think readers are always kind of aspiring writers, so I imagine that most readers are curious about how it gets put together, and that's one of the great kind of craft insights that a series like Booknotes offered.
Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you, and is this generally different from other interviews you have experienced?
So it didn't surprise me, because I knew the show, but it did worry me, because like I said, I was a young professor, and I was uncomfortable talking about my resume, and it was awkward for me. But he did ask me a bunch of these questions, and he came at me about this question of how the National Trust had commissioned the book and whether or not it affected the way I wrote it. He was all over all those details, and I felt like I handled it, but it was definitely different. You don't usually get asked questions like that. Most reviewers, interviewers focus on the big picture of the book itself and not your story, especially when you're not a celebrity. I wasn't for sure, and most of the authors on Booknotes are not celebrities.
Well, you mentioned that you watched Booknotes before your own appearance. Did your experience with the show change your impression of it?
I don't think so. He does seem to be one of those people who's the same on camera as off camera. I mean, in my few conversations with him before and after the taping, he seems to have a great sense of humor. Maybe that doesn't always come across in the interviews, but sometimes you see it. And then the intensity is always there, and that was what I had seen before. That's what I experienced, and every time I've watched it since, that's always what stands out at me. Just a very serious reader.
As you may or may not know, George Mason University has been gifted all of Lamb's personal copies of the books used in the Booknotes series, which amounts to some 800 non-fiction books. What do you think the benefits and uses of such a collection might be?
So it's a great library of non-fiction work from a certain period in American history, and I would hope at some point some professors or students might try to annotate the books with the Booknotes interviews. I think it would be a really interesting experience to chop up the interviews and apply them to sections of the book and let readers see that in some format, whether it's digital or paper. I think it would add to the experience to be able to kind of get a behind-the-scenes look at the book through Brian Lamb's interview while you're reading it.
Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program once. If asked back, would you have returned for another interview?
I would have come back every week. It was a great boost to my career, and it was a wonderful experience. Like I said, I had other interviews with him in different shows after that, and I was always grateful for the opportunity.
Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes?
I'm sure there was. The book itself, since it was commissioned by the National Trust, they received the royalties from it. So I was never really totally up to date on sales information, but this book sold very well and went through multiple editions. I think it was going to sell reasonably well with or without the interview, but the interview certainly gave it a higher profile. I got inundated with emails and calls and comments from people all over the country who had seen it.
Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?
I don't think "rethink" is the right word. I've always been somebody who really cares about detail. I was taught that way by David Donald, who was kind of my mentor as an undergraduate. My father was a professor. I'd always been drilled on the value of paying attention to detail, and Brian Lamb's approach and the interview only seemed to confirm the wisdom of that for me. So I didn't rethink anything, but for me the experience just confirmed what I always thought was the right approach to the craft.
What have you been working on since this book, and which works are you most pleased with?
Well, the year since I've been writing and speaking about Abraham Lincoln and the Underground Railroad, but it occurred to me that what I've done more than anything else in some ways since then is I've developed a whole host of websites and I've been really invested in creating digital resources, especially for K-12 teachers on the Civil War era. So I've come across all of the C-SPAN digital materials that have been created in the years since that interview. I feel as if Booknotes was a precursor to the C-SPAN digital archive and to American History TV. All of the programming, digital and television, that C-SPAN undertakes as a way to try to reach a general audience is exactly what I've been trying to do with my House Divided project at Dickinson, trying to reach a general audience of teachers and students. I feel as if there's a shared set of values there about the importance of taking real scholarship and digesting it and presenting it in a way that a general audience, especially a classroom audience, can understand.
In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then-contemporary American society and perhaps since?
So I think there's a certain clique of people that Booknotes was kind of like their Oprah's book club. And it represented the calling card of authors who had crossed over and reached a broader audience than just fellow scholars. And especially in the Civil War era or in certain areas of American history, it was a really important thing to be a part of that Booknotes community. And I think that was part of the lasting impact of the show. And like I said a minute ago, I also think that Booknotes kind of was a precursor to a whole bunch of things that are living today, like American History TV through C-SPAN 3 or other resources that C-SPAN has created that I feel derived from the success of Booknotes.
Is there anything else you would like to add regarding Booknotes, C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?
Only that I feel Brian Lamb was a pioneer, totally unexpected C-SPAN and then Booknotes and then the multiple C-SPANs and everything else that's created out of this experiment in democracy, televising democracy. I feel like it's a one man show or it was for a long time and he deserves an awful lot of credit for doing something that nobody would have thought would have had any staying power, but turns out it did. He deserves a lot of credit for that. Great.
Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.