374: Reading with Oprah by Kathleen Rooney

by Gerard

374.22: Rooney, Kathleen. Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2005. 212 pp. ISBN 1-55728-782-1.

Dewey Construction:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 370: Education
  • 374: Adult Education
  • 374.22: Groups (including reading and discussion groups) in adult education

Everyone who reads has an opinion about Oprah’s Book Club. Its very properties made it impervious to ambivalence. A popularized women’s television show was picking books for America to read and discuss. The guru of self-esteem and self-improvement was trying to get America reading again (as if they had stopped). Either you loved the act of seemingly altruistic literary stewardship or you deplored the populist “dumbing down” of her literary analysis. From 1996 to 2002 (the first incarnation of Oprah’s Book Club), Oprah picked books for her audience to read and relate to. For each of these picks, she would sit down to a dinner with the author and a few select viewers to discuss how the book affected their lives and made them feel.

In the beginning, even I decried the OBC as a bastion of middlebrow puff pieces, but as time went on, and the Harry Potter books were published and lapped up by the adoring public, I mellowed to the realization that at least people were reading books. And Kathleen Rooney sees it that way, too. In Reading with Oprah, she gives the OBC a fighting chance. Her main argument is that the book club actually picked decent books (she, in fact, read all of them). While there were a few that were legitimately dreck and unreadable, the vast majority of Winfrey’s selections were quality volumes, and few were even considered outstanding. Most of the club opponents, she argues, had not bothered to read the selections, and therefore assumed (much like me), that they were just another form of pandering to mediocre authors.

Rooney, however, does include a fair critique of the club as well. Her main sticking point is that the books were not interacted with on a literary level. Oprah and her audience merely used them as vehicles to talk about their lives and feeling, and eschewed detailed analysis of plot, characterization, and metaphor. While Oprah used her monumental audience size to distribute decent books to the masses, her methodology was inherently handicapped by the mere use of television as the vehicle for the club. Television serves to flatten complexity, increase melodrama, and sanitize gray areas of thought. In this I agree with Rooney. But, if America is reading works of verve and complexity, then who am I argue?