Don't invite this woman to your book club

I am no great fan of Oprah's. My reasons for disliking her have less to do with her promotion of crass consumerism (though I once caught part of one of her orgiastic "favorite things" episodes and it felt like being beaten senseless with a Neiman Marcus catalog) than with her giving a huge audience to harmful "alternative medicine" charlatans and idiots. They've covered the topic pretty thoroughly over at Science-Based Medicine, so I needn't spend more time on that here.

However, one thing I admire about Oprah is her promotion of reading as both a pass-time and as a path to self-improvement. I firmly believe that great literature is one of the most edifying things mankind has produced, and making her viewers aware of its rewards is a very good thing. Though I loathed The Corrections (not as much as 2666, admittedly, but a lot) and was unhappy to see how the whole book club brouhaha redounded to Jonathan Franzen's fame, on the whole I think Oprah's contribution to reading and publishing has been positive.

With this in mind, I found Hillary Kelly's hatchet job over at TNR incredibly churlish and deeply elitist. She takes exception to Oprah's selection of Dickens's Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities:
Billed as “A Date with Dickens,” Oprah’s sentimentalized pitch for consuming the author’s work—it’s “cup of hot chocolate” reading—is sure to inspire a frightening number of purchases. Just as they have for the past 14 years, cadres of women around the globe will flock to bookstores to nab covers with a small circular “O” sticker on the top right corner. Oprah has proven that she can catapult a contemporary author from obscurity to fame; but, more interestingly, she’s shown she can also revivify the great novels. Dubbed the “Oprah Effect,” Winfrey’s seal of approval and magnanimous praise has bolstered the sales of dozens of novels and, in turn, annoyed bitter English teachers everywhere. After all, Oprah is doing the impossible—she is convincing the masses to purchase and read classics.
If anyone can explain to me why English teachers would be annoyed at "the masses" reading the classics, I'd love to hear it. In that same vein, I imagine Dickens's prose to be sufficiently robust to withstand whatever insidious effect comes with a small, circular "O" sticker. Apparently millions of women reading these novels is somehow scary. I'm not sure why.
Now imagine this scenario somewhat differently. Your 16 year old announces that her English class will be reading Great Expectations. Fabulous, you think. A real piece of literature, a break from the Twilight nonsense and the watering down of education. “What will you discuss?” you ask your child. “Oh, we don’t know yet,” she says. “My teacher has never read it before. In fact, she’s never read any Dickens. She just thought it would be fun to read this with a cup of tea in hand!” My guess is that you would be annoyed.

And yet, Oprah does just that, only it’s worse: She has asked millions of people to follow her into some of the more difficult prose to come out of the nineteenth century—prose she knows nothing about. Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to “live your best life” is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligence—she is quite clearly a woman of savvy—but because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional.

Perhaps I would be annoyed by a teacher leading a class about a work she hadn't read. I can see how that might be annoying. What I can't see is what that has to do with Oprah. She doesn't bill herself as a teacher or professor, and her book club isn't an accredited seminar. It's a book club. In all the book clubs I've attended, most of the people reading the book were unfamiliar with it.

Also, why should popular culture shy away from "difficult" prose? Aren't we all lamenting the dumbing-down of America? Isn't part of the remedy to approach daunting, difficult art? And is Dickens really that difficult?

Oprah’s approach to her Book Club is all about herself. Her recent announcement contained not a word of reasoning or insightfulness about Dickens’s work; instead, she explained her reason for picking two of his novels by shouting, in a lame attempt at literary humor, “Cause it’s the best of times!” Just as she deems her “favorite things” worthy of an annual consumer-fest, she happily pushes to her audience of millions whatever books she herself wants to read.

I suppose that's one of the nice things about being the host of one's own wildly successful talk show. One can pick whatever books one wants to read for one's book club. Um... so?

Since its inception in 1996, the Book Club has carved its niche among readers by telling them that the novel is a chance to learn more about themselves. It’s not about literature or writing; it’s about looking into a mirror and deciding what type of person you are, and how you can be better. While a generally wrongheaded view of novels, this notion is all the more frustrating when the club delves into the true classics, with their vast knottiness, glorious language, breathtaking characters, and multi-faceted, mind-twisting prose. None of that matters in Oprah’s view of books, since reading is yet another exercise in self-gratification. “If you have read him, what do you think Dickens might have to share and teach those of us who live in this digital age?” the Book Club’s producer, Jill, asks on Oprah’s website. This is the Eat, Pray, Love school of reading.

Indeed, Oprah’s readers have been left in the dark. They must now scramble about to decipher Dickens’s obscure dialectical styling and his long-lost euphemisms—and the sad truth is that, with no real guidance, readers cannot grow into lovers of the canon. Instead, they can only mimic their high-school selves with calls of, “It’s too hard!” Or, else, they can put aside any notions of reading to become a better reader and instead immerse themselves in the nonsense of “discovering their true selves” in novels.
What snotty, self-satisfied claptrap. How on earth is trying to apply the content of a novel to one's own experience "wrongheaded"? If literature's only purpose is to be held at a distance and admired, then I seem to have been doing it wrong all this time. I, like my (genuinely lamented and missed) favorite contemporary author, read literature to feel "less alone inside."

And who the hell is Hillary Kelly to say that Oprah's readers will cry that it's "too hard"? How does she know how Oprah's viewers will handle the challenge? The same audience seemed to do OK with Anna Karenina, not exactly beach blanket reading. I suspect Kelly says more about her own prejudices with this piece than she does about Oprah's audience.

I'm halfway through Swann's Way right now. I am reading it completely on my own, with no authoritative guide or teacher. While some of Proust's syntax requires me to read passages two or three times before I can parse his meaning, I am finding it immensely enjoyable and rewarding. He writes with amazing insight into what makes us human, and last night I was deeply moved to read a phrase that spoke to my own experience of walking down a street in the evening and looking in the illuminated windows above, in simple but magical terms. Am I somehow reading it "wrong"?

Part of why I don't like Ulysses is that one patently does need a guide to decipher it. After having read it similarly on my own, I found myself baffled by large thickets of obscure references and abstruse phraseology. My own view is that if literature cannot be picked up and enjoyed by a reader of average intelligence and dedication, and requires a guide or key to understand most of it, then its value as art is sharply circumscribed. (Enough people have urged me to read Ulysses again with such a guide, and have lauded its rewards, that I'll give it another shot one of these days.)

Pedants like Kelly clearly think that average readers are unworthy of the classics, and that only appropriately learned people such as themselves are in a position to shepherd the common folk through the otherwise-impossible task of appreciating great literature. I think that's hogwash. Say what you will about Oprah, if she gets more Americans to pick up a great book and learn something about what it means to live a good life, then she's done something good for the world.

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