READING WITH OPRAH: The Book Club That Changed America
Kathleen Rooney, . . Univ. of Arkansas, $24.95 (234pp) ISBN 978-1-55728-782-3
The debate goes on—no, not the election debate, the one about Oprah's Book Club. Was it a positive force in the literary education of American women? Or was it a vote for middle- or even low-brow culture, to be scorned by the truly literate? While two new studies don't agree on every point, they do agree that Oprah's Book Club was revolutionary, and they take a positive view of its "democratizing" impact.
The impact of Oprah Winfrey's television book club is well known to everyone in the book business. Yet many among the literati assumed Oprah's picks were mediocre and resented the star's posturing as a tastemaker. In her lively, information-filled account of the club's history, Rooney, an award-winning poet and a writing instructor at Emerson College, defends Oprah as a genuine "intellectual force" who "promoted the bridging of the high–low chasm" in American literary life. Although Rooney confesses she found many picks unreadable for reasons she eloquently explains she points out the literary worth of selected novels by Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, Rohinton Mistry and others. Rooney relates theoretical ideas on taste, literary value and cultural hierarchy to the social phenomenon of Oprah's club and focuses on every up and down in the face-off between Oprah and Franzen, saying each was disingenuous at times, and both missed an opportunity to look at larger questions of our literary culture. On the negative side, Rooney finds Oprah manipulative and inclined to interpret literary fiction in the reductive terms of autobiography and self-help. Ultimately, Rooney sees Oprah's Book Club (including its latest incarnation) as a positive effort. Although Rooney's sometimes awkward prose can get bogged down in anecdotal evidence and personal asides, she accurately captures the cultural unrest surrounding the Oprah Book Club and raises numerous thoughtful points about its significance.
Reviewed on: 11/01/2004