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She's so, like, September 10th

By Jackson Murphy
web posted April 8, 2002

People have often questioned President Bush's intellectual curiosity, but Bush has spent the past few months reading Bernard Goldberg's Bias, and books on Teddy Roosevelt. No one dares to question Oprah Winfrey, the talk show host who has made a killing from pronouncing books that her audience should read. Even as she cancels her book club it is all about her-about what a great service she has done. Welcome to another casualty of the cultural shift; another reminder of the growing dust heap of history that is the Clinton years.

Winfrey said on April 5 that she was finding it harder to find novels she felt 'absolutely compelled to share' and will scale back on selections for her book club
Winfrey said on April 5 that she was finding it harder to find novels she felt 'absolutely compelled to share' and will scale back on selections for her book club

Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Oprah's literature recommendations. Time magazine named Oprah one of its 100 most influential artists and entertainers of the last century and described her this way: "Winfrey stands as a beacon, not only in the worlds of media and entertainment but also in the larger realm of public discourse."

Mary Elizabeth Williams writing in Salon.com observed that Oprah's power is, "Smartly choosing books that are challenging but not cryptic, easy to relate to but diverse, she pushes her audience to become not just readers but thinkers and talkers." This is the idea that when the "Oprahheads" get tired of her recommendations they will start reading on their own. That those who pooh-pooh this book club fail to understand its power.

The irony, Williams writes is, "that so many of the most contemptuous critics of Oprah and her audience posit themselves as 'real' readers, successful products of a liberal education. They're the intellectual equivalent of those fundamentalist Christians who bang the intolerance drum the loudest. They wear their learning like armor, a thing that keeps the riff-raff out rather than inviting the world in. They've lost touch with the infectious joy of reading, the humanity and universality of it."

No one can deny that Oprah, and other phenomenon's like Harry Potter; have encouraged a society that appeared to be reading less. But really, it has become an exercise that repulses many as Oprah and her legions of fans read, cry, and talk (and they do so at great length) about the latest Toni Morrison novel. And once you let Oprah take over the book, she gets to put her seal of approval on it. The book will always be linked with the talk show host. Sure the author now has the luxury of lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills, but it is a pact with the devil. Oprah branded approval meant hundreds of thousands of copies sold, it meant huge displays at the bookstores, and it meant fame. But it also meant being the joke of book snobs.

All of this is unimportant. Oprah has become a rich woman (some $900 million) because she understands both mass media and the free market. So lets go with the notion that the power of Oprah is, generally, a good thing -- The New York Times reports that the book club meant 12 million extra books being sold last year. But she could hardly claim to be adding something to the "public discourse". The books she recommends are all variations on a theme but really don't add nor detract from discourse.

In a statement last week, Oprah announced that she will be stopping regular book club selections stating, "I will continue featuring books on the 'Oprah Winfrey Show' when I feel they merit my heartfelt recommendation."

So let me get this straight. In the wake of the terrorist attack on America last fall, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, terrorist cell-busters operating in Yemen, Georgia, and The Philippines, the probability of war with Iraq before next year, and the inflamed Israeli-Palestinian war and Oprah Winfrey, the champion of reading and selling books, doesn't think there are enough good books out there to do the monthly segment. This sounds suspicious to me and suggests that maybe people are moving above and beyond the Oprah Club. Why stop something so beloved and successful?

Take Andrew Sullivan's own book club at AndrewSullivan.com. It has helped to make his site profitable for three months now. This book club has looked at Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics, Frank Bruni's Ambling into History, and is gearing up to explore Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist. They read along with Sullivan, get to ask the authors questions, and get some of their comments posted along the way. Basically it is a book club for smart curious people. Not intellectual posers like Oprah.

The biggest cultural shift in the past 25 years and Oprah decides that her viewers wouldn't benefit from maybe reading some important books. Perhaps Kaplan's Warrior Politics? What about Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem or Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong? She has failed to adjust, similar to other icons of the 1990's like Bill Clinton, to the reality of a dangerous world. A world that cannot be experienced through postmodern fiction, forced tears or Dr. Phil alone. She is so, like, September 10th.

Jackson Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, Canada. He is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right and edits "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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