Everybody’s Reading Group

By Lise Funderburg

February 27, 2005

READING WITH OPRAH: The Book Club That Changed America, by Kathleen Rooney. University of Arkansas Press, 234 pp., $24.95.

One of the greatest phenomena to hit the publishing world in the past decade has been the Oprah Book Club, credited with selling millions of novels and bringing an enthusiasm for reading to a segment of the American public that had, by its own admission, not been so interested in books.

Media titan Oprah Winfrey launched the club in 1996 on her afternoon talk show, handing out books to the audience and later bringing on authors for questions and discussions. The club drew 13 million regular viewers, according to The New York Times Magazine.

Until she shut it down in 2002 – hard-pressed to continue the labor-intensive search for club-worthy books and possibly scarred by the brush she had with author Jonathan Franzen – Winfrey brought unprecedented attention to several autobiographies, children’s books and, of most interest to author Kathleen Rooney, “43 works of adult contemporary fiction.” The latter included novels such as Bernard Schlink’s “The Reader” and Anita Shreve’s “The Pilot’s Wife.”

In her book “Reading With Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America,” budding academic Rooney attempts to consider the role Winfrey and her club played in challenging the status quo of American literary culture, particularly the tension between what is considered highbrow or lowbrow.

If this sounds like the subject of a master’s thesis, it appears that Rooney’s undertaking originally was just such a project. Unfortunately, even after having been processed for public consumption, her book retains the earmarks of an academic tract meant to anchor a tenure dossier sometime down the road.

Statements of hypotheses are dutifully followed by supporting citations; source notes embedded in the text read like a technical manual; and the heavy reliance on secondary and tertiary sources (primary original data mainly come from an 11-question survey sent to each book club author) dulls and distances readers from the issues at hand.

And Rooney’s very language – her repeated emphasis on the problems of “positionality” and “interiority,” “externality” and “circularity” – serves only to reduce the book’s readability.

Furthermore, there is a much-ado-about-nothing quality to the book. For example, Rooney regards as cataclysmic such events as the rift between Winfrey and Franzen, whose publicly stated ambivalence about being added to Oprah’s list caused him to be disinvited from the show (although his book “The Corrections” remained a club selection).

Rooney breathlessly refers to “what on Earth went so, so wrong between Franzen and Winfrey” as if to stir readers’ concern, but her own even-handed discussion of events suggest that there was not much more than a smidgen of raised hackles here, a frisson of poor judgment there.

Every now and then, wedged between sources and quotes from book critics and pop culture writers, Rooney directly addresses readers with her own ideas, free of annotation and jingo. Here, she asserts that Winfrey’s treatment of novels obscured the novels themselves: “[T]he manner in which she exploited the books is rooted in [her show’s] very dedication to moral uplift. By heaping so many expectations on the selections in terms of their use as stepping stones to a better lifestyle, Winfrey consistently interpreted the books … not as literary novels, but as so many self-help texts.”

Winfrey’s inclination to identify personally with the novels and to encourage her audience to do the same is really what all the fuss is about – whether that’s the right or wrong way to read. But really, how can any kind of reading be wrong?

Since Rooney began her study of the Oprah Book Club, for better or worse, the club has died and been reformatted in a way that puts to rest many of the critiques levied against it. Winfrey’s new club focuses on “Great Books,” and discussion leans away from the singularly personal connection between reader and text.

If this shift in the resurrected club’s focus doesn’t challenge the worth of Rooney’s earnest interrogation, Rooney herself does. At the close of the book, she reverses her position that the debate over culture and literary tastes is worth having. “[I]t now strikes me as weird that so many people made so very much of Winfrey’s creation of a televised book club showcasing contemporary fiction.”

Yeah. Me, too.