Saturday, April 09, 2005

A book about Oprah's book club

Blogosphere surfing again. Visiting Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading I found a link to an Orlando Sentinel story about a new book apparently analyzing the Oprah Book Club phenomenon.

Now, I am a fan of Oprah's, and I enjoyed her book club, even if some of the selections weren't to my taste. Anybody who can motivate people to buy --and read-- books deserves commendation, in my book.

So, I'm not against Oprah, her book club, book clubs in general, or university press books. However, reading the article and the author interview about Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America by Kathleen Rooney (University of Arkansas Press, 2005), I'm not filled with confidence about this new book, "an earnestly argued look at what worked -- and what didn't -- in Winfrey's brave attempt to raise the collective brow of her fans." Mmm... 'earnestly argued' doesn't impress me; I wonder if the patronizing tone is purposeful or unintended? And I don't think that Oprah was trying to browbeat people into being 'higher browed' -- my take on it is that she understands how reading can enrich lives and was trying to get more people reading. (And maybe, like the rest of us, she enjoyed getting free Advanced Reading Copies...)

But it gets better. This is an excerpt of the author interview. (Note both the incisive questions and the well-reasoned answers - my comments in italics):

Q. How'd you research "Reading With Oprah"?
A. I read every single book Oprah ever selected. . . . I focused on adult contemporary fiction. It was an absorbent phase.When I first set about the project, I was on the side of those who were skeptical. There's a common misconception that she had a particular type of book she picked. You can pick out patterns. But she didn't pick just one kind. It was diverse. She'd pick [a book by] Anita Shreve and then Bernard Schlink's "The Reader" [a German novel about a young man's love affair with a woman later prosecuted for Nazi war crimes]. [Well, color me impressed. If I came to my thesis advisor with this explanation of my analytical approach, she would laugh me off campus. Hell, if one of my undergrads decided to use this tack for an essay I'd be disappointed... I hope this answer is not representative of the depth and quality of Rooney's thought, only an example of her being nervous about being interviewed...]

Q. Tell us some of your conclusions.
A. I think for one thing, it showed this hunger for intellectual satisfaction in the American public that a lot of people hadn't acknowledged. Oprah showed that people do want to read. She showed that television doesn't have to be lowbrow. [And we need a book to tell us this? I guess maybe the prior question does accurately reflect the quality of the research... And here we go with the lowbrow thing again. Do you think Rooney's assumption is that anything tv is lowbrow and anything print is high(er) brow? BTW, I would disagree with that.]

Q. Any downside to Oprah's Book Club?
A. My one critique was that it was on TV. The discussions weren't really discussions. [Author] Sue Miller pointed out that it's really more of a commercial. [That's her criticism -- it was on tv? Hard-hitting cultural criticism here. And I find nothing wrong with advertising books --if indeed that's what it was-- if it gets more books sold and read, regardless of the perceived quality of those books.]

In preparation for this post, I went searching Amazon for this book, and I found another one with almost the same title (and subtitle), published a few months ago:

Well, my interest is piqued. I'll track down both these books and see how they stack up. This inquiring mind (and endlessly curious reader) wants to know. I'll of course keep you posted!

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