Oprah, Popular Reading, and the Social Side of Books

How different is it to read a book just for pleasure versus reading a book in a course? Has a particular teacher or course shaped the way you read or the books you choose – or are these kinds of reading mostly separate?

Oprah’s book club is somewhere between those experiences. Reading one of her chosen books is voluntary, but readers are encouraged to delve into the book and explore its meaning. Because the numbers of people reading the books she recommends is so vast, she’s credited with “saving the alphabet.” Though the existence of the book club didn’t significantly raise the numbers of books sold, it certainly raised the sales of the books she chose – and the profile of books in general.

Oprah has made reading both a  part of her autobiography (in that being a reader was a saving grace in a difficult childhood). Her narrative is a story, just like the books she recommends, and there is a connection between those stories and her story. She identifies with the writers of books that were important to her as guides. And makes her television book club an invitation into her home and her life, which gives her a connection to potential readers. She’s not the same kind of authority figure as a teacher. But while she dismisses pretension, or a visible authority, she does want to challenge readers to read difficult books because reading will improve them in an inspirational way. They are both self-improving and a means of self-discovery, a mix of social betterment and social change.

This distinguishes her from the literary elite who shun the “self-help” and uplift through books that Oprah promises. Literary critics do not encourage readers to relate books “lessons” to their own lives. They are more focused on the books and how they work; on developing certain critical frameworks for understanding books without reference to what those books do to readers and their personal lives, which is often considered irrelevant to the reading. Reflecting on parallels between characters in a book and your personal life is considered an unsophisticated approach to reading.

The Franzen affair: when Oprah chose Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for her book club, he commented to the press that he had mixed feelings. He didn’t want the corporate brand on the cover of his book, and he was afraid that people would think less of its literary merits. He knew people who avoided Oprah books because they thought they were too sentimental and too accessible to the middle class readers and to women. She was furious, disinvited him to her show, and soon after discontinued her book club. Many characterized this controversy as a gap between those who feel literary novels are those too sophisticated to be appreciated by the masses and those who feel literary types are snobs.

Eventually she restarted her book club with classics. When she departed from the classics for a popular book, there was yet another huge controversy – when James Fry’s Million Little Pieces was debunked as untruthful. Now she has launched an online bookclub tied to her magazine, Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.

The Idea of “Bestsellers”

Bestseller lists first appeared in 1896. These are based not on books shipped to bookstores (because they may not sell, but be returned) but on sales information gathered from stores around the country. Now there is a system to gather these numbers electronically (“Bookscan”) but no bestseller list includes every bookstore everywhere in the country.  Still, it’s a fairly accurate estimate.

Sometimes deciding what counts is a problem. When Harry Potter nailed the top three spots in The New York Times list, they decided children’s books should be counted separately and started a different list for them, fearful there would be nothing but Potter on their list. At some point, religion got its own list, too, and that has changed what “makes the list” over the years. But by and large, we have over a century’s worth of information about what books have been popular year by year.

Though there are far more books available now to more people than there were fifty years ago and some pundits think the key to satisfying people’s interests is to offer them a wealth of niche-market books – Chris Anderson’s idea of the “long tail” – the fact is, the book industry still makes a lot of money from a very few books, and to make it to the bestseller list far more copies need to be sold than before there were massive chain bookstores and Internet sales.

Reading: Solitary and Social

In one sense, reading is a very solitary activity. As Spufford describes it, it’s a way of detaching totally from the world around him – like an airlock: “It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside.” The child and the book exist in a world completely cut off from the world around him. It’s a form of escape. It’s a form of turning inward – shared only with the book, which takes you away from the world you share with those around you.

Yet, there is a social side to reading. In some senses, the bestseller list is shaped by that impulse to share books. We want to read what others read so we can share an experience with them and be part of the gang. The experiences we have with books as we become readers (or not) are very much shaped by the social encounters around them. We read because we associate reading with a warm lap and a comforting voice. Or perhaps we don’t have that association and books are something from a strange and scary place that isn’t like our personal experience. If books are not something we share with family and friends they may be only a school task and be just as much fun as a math worksheet. Or if you enjoy reading, but nobody in your social circle does, it may be less enjoyable for you.

Often, finding a reading mentor can change someone’s life. Mark Edmundson wrote a book, Why Read? in which he made a case for the importance of reading good books, and in it he described how a teacher opened his life up to books – which totally changed his future. For me, it was a librarian who was the first person to think of me as a reader. Mike Rose, a teacher, has written about the obstacles that stand in the way of inner city kids becoming literate, including the way we stigmatize students and make literacy a problem of productivity and criminality, not about human beings and their potential. So the solitary nature of reading is only one side of the ways we interact with books. They also have a social life.

Elizabeth Long wrote about women’s reading groups and the ways they both are influenced by literary norms – our collective expectations about what makes for a “good” book – but also how they negotiate their own responses to books and their place as women in culture. A sociologist, she was criticized by colleagues for choosing this as a subject – “oh, book clubs. My wife belongs to one of those.”  Because they were for middle class women, they presumably were unworthy of attention.

When people get together to discuss books, their reading practices are not those of the literary elite – the professionals – even if they try to adopt those practices. They talk about characters as if they are people in real situations, not as if they are constructs to be disassembled and examined. There’s a level of support and connectedness in the groups. And they have  complex identity as middle-class women who are privileged, but who are also devalued because they are women. This article very much reflects its time, when scholars were trying hard to figure out the power relationships involved in gender and questioning how class intersects with those power relationships. Yet still – as reactions to Oprah’s Book Club such as l’affair Franzen demonstrate, there’s a certain devaluing of reading when it’s done by women.

In addition to face-to-face book clubs, there are thousands of online communities focused on reading and discussing books. And now there are several social networking sites specifically geared to books, including these which we looked at in class:

Amazon, a massively influential player in the book business, was an early adopter of social media, inviting readers to post reviews, discuss books, comment on reviews, and connect with authors. All of this interaction provides useful data for Amazon. It also makes their site “sticky” – people return again and again. But the impartiality of their reviews is often in dispute. Most recently, Amazon has responded to complaints that writers were posting reviews under pseudonyms by removing reviews by authors.

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