Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Booknote: Reading Oprah

Title: Reading Oprah: How Oprah's Book Club Changed the Way America Reads
Author: Cecilia Konchar Farr
Publication Information: New York: SUNY Press, 2005
ISBN: 0-7914-6258-7
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Reading and books
Pages: 164, including appendixes and index

This book is a fast read, but only because after a while it gets repetitive, and you can pretty much skim your way to the end. If you like Oprah, this is definitely a book you will want to read. If on the other hand, you do not care for Oprah, then the author's lavish praises of Oprah's genius at creating a book club will get tiresome. On the positive side, the author gives Oprah credit for getting a lot of women to read. Yes, women. The readers of the club are pretty much the women who watch the show. Oprah gets credit for getting them not only to read, but to read good literature. Well, good literature if you keep in mind that the books on her list are the books that Oprah chose, and that they are not without their flaws, which the author points out, but usually in the context of her students mentioning such and her pretty much saying they are not savvy enough to know. Readers should also keep in mind that the author teaches a course on Oprah Books. Additionally, the book mostly focuses on the first form of the Book Club. As readers may know, Oprah took a hiatus, then came back with a new version emphasizing classics of literature.

On the positive, Oprah is given credit by the author for getting the women of her club to read critically. Oprah is portrayed as this teacher who manages to get women to read these complex works of literature. By literature, we mean contemporary literary fiction. There is no room here for any genre fiction, which right away alienates readers like me who read things like science fiction and can argue it can be of as much if not better quality than things on Oprah's list. However, that would be a different discussion. By reading critically, the author means talking about the books and looking both at the issues a book presents as well as the book as art and craft. Also, Oprah is shown as making a smart move by having Toni Morrison as her mentor when it came to teaching about literature. The author does see what Oprah did with the club as a form of teaching. I think that may be open to debate, but I am a male reader, which pretty much leaves me out of the target demographic. Also, between the passages about the club, the author provides discussions on the history of the novel and on book clubs, which I found interesting and learned a thing or two. The book also discusses briefly how the book publishing world works. It is worthy to note that Oprah does not make any money from her book list or recommendations. The publishers are the ones who reap a lot of benefit when a book that would sell only a few thousand copies can suddenly have a run in the hundreds of thousands of copies.

On the negative side, the author points out that these books were Oprah's choices. In other words, the books she likes to read. Very often, this translates to books about women who usually face some problem or issue and then overcome it. The author shows how the chosen books often echo aspects of Oprah's own life and of her show. For instace, she cites D.T. Max, a writer for the New York Times who wrote about the club. He said that fans "are looking for her [Oprah] in the books she gives them to read" (qtd. in 64-65). She goes on to ask if the question is whether Oprah and the books she chooses are nothing more than the latest form of the Horatio Alger stories, only this time for women. I think many readers will answer yes. There are other issues. For instance, the author tells how the book discussions in the studio seemed to usually be stacked with readers who faced a certain issue, for example divorcees or victims of domestic abuse. This often meant that the actual book discussion was shorter as the issue of the day took precedence. This is seen as a reflection of the show itself. However, the author seems to ignore these and other criticisms, or at least minimize them. This passage is a good example of what I mean:

"Sure, Oprah's status as a celebrity leads viewers to dwell on her rags-to-riches story. Sure, her ratings numbers demand confession and easy affirmation, and her format requires a carefully organized and coherent one-hour program. And sure, her commitment to self-improvement leades her to overemphasize this aspect of novels. But despite it all, Winfrey does good work with the Book Club, work professional educators and critics have failed to do on a scale anywhere near this one" (72).

It did strike me a bit condescending, maybe because I was a teacher and taught literature at one point. I don't think I was a total failure, and I don't think many teachers out there are failures either because they have smaller audiences and the more restricted classroom space. I do note that the author does not include herself in this, after all, she teaches a course on this. What I am trying to say is that I get the impression she dimisses the objections too easily. It is true that Oprah has done some positive things with the Book Club, but dismissing the criticism because of those good things is just an easy way out. I know by typing this I will probably incur the wrath of some fan who may read this, but I am not too worried in that area. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the points of praise get repetitive after a while, so halfway through the book, you pretty much know what the rest will be. I think this could have been done as an extended paper or presentation.

Additionally, for readers wondering what the deal was with Jonathan Franzen, winner of the National Book Award and author of The Corrections, when Oprah chose his book for the Book Club, it is explained here. Pretty much it boils down to the author felt uncomfortable, and Oprah withdrew the invitation so as not to make him uncomfortable. He made some remarks about some of Oprah's other book choices, which were not exactly nice; he saw them as "light" to put it mildly. The media ran with it.

Overall, I think that fans will love this book, and detractors will likely see the negatives more without seeing the positive. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that as a reader, the types of books on Oprah's list are not what I read in terms of my preferences. I have only read two authors on her list. One was Toni Morrison; I read Beloved for a class in graduate school, and I actually like some of Toni Morrison's work, heavy as it can be. The other was Isabel Allende (not "Isabelle" like Professor Farr seems to think. Either she does not know how to spell the author's name or her proofreader did not catch it. Actually, this book has quite a few typos like that. Robert Ludlum's name is also mispelled as Ludlam. I found such little carelessness distracting when reading). I read Daughter of Fortune, which was an Oprah pick, but I did so before it became a pick; I have been reading Allende for years, thanks to my mother who is a big fan. Allende writes beautifully. In terms of what do I read, in brief, I read in genres, science fiction being both a personal and an academic interest, and a lot of nonfiction. Down the road, I am planning on posting my reader profile, a reader's advisory exercise, but for now, this will have to do. For readers more interested in what I read, I have written a reflection here and there. Here is one about librarian reading. Overall, I recommend the book, but with some reservations. Public librarians who do a lot of reader's advisory and likely have to be very familiar with Oprah's list may want to read this book. For academic study, this book probably needs to be balanced with other works, such as Kathleen Rooney's Reading with Oprah: The Book that Changed America. I have not read that book yet, but our library ordered along with Farr's book. If I read it, I will post a note as well.

No comments: