Reaching to the converted

Oprah's Book Club introduces readers to people they already know -- themselves.

Published November 12, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

One thing you have to grant Starbucks: A lot of Americans are now drinking decent coffee, whereas not long ago, the best you could count on finding throughout most of the country was 40-weight diner mud. You also have to say something of that nature for Oprah's Book Club, for the Martha Stewart empire and for Target, Wal-Mart and the rest of our neutron-bomb superstores.

Owing to their efforts, it's now possible to make a random parachute jump into almost any part of the country with a scavenger-hunt list of diverse, formerly haute-middlebrow items -- such as faux-Victorian wall-trim appliquis, severe-looking desk lamps, walnut veneer picture frames, palazzo pants, extra virgin olive oil, dried serrano chiles and Anna Quindlen novels -- and to be reasonably sure of greeting the rescue plane at the end of the day with a full load of swag. The level of our mass taste -- the Public Brow -- has been surging upward over the past several years, and it's hard not to see that as some kind of victory for American culture, and for our domestic grace-and-dignity index, no matter what commercial forces might be mustered behind it, or how compromised and tricked-up much of the stuff may actually be.

But ultimately there are those factors to think about; and in the case of the Book Club, there's also the matter of what America thinks it's choosing when it listens to Oprah's advice, passes on the new Danielle Steel novel and reaches instead for the Quindlen. Home furnishings, et al., are supposed to express your tastes and reinforce your ideas of what's good in the world. They succeed or fail according to how much pleasure you derive from them. But Oprah's book club is supposed to improve you, to guide you toward becoming a better, wiser person.

It's questionable that reading good books will do that in the first place, considering how writers and college professors generally turn out. But even if reading does enhance the character, most of the books that Oprah recommends are designed to have just the opposite effect: to play on base sentiment, to reaffirm popular wisdom, to tell readers what they expect to hear and to help them learn what they already know. They're designed, like any sort of middlebrow dry-good or specialty food on the shelves at Target or Starbucks, to express their readers' (and Oprah's) tastes, and to reinforce what they think is right and wrong in the world.

Most of the books chosen for the Book Club come with an easy issue and a correct opinion already attached, such as the domestic violence of Quindlen's "Black and Blue" (you're against it), the womanliness of Chris Bohjalian's "Midwives" (you're for it) and the blunt racio-sexual politics of Maya Angelou, Edwidge Danticat, Breena Clarke and others (you identify with brave Little Topsy in a world of Simon Legrees). Ralph Ellison's historic, compelling "Juneteenth" came and went, unrecommended by Oprah. But Clarke's "River, Cross My Heart," a poorly written, sentimental novel from a diversity bureaucrat at Time Inc., was launched into the rosters last month. You're for it.

There have been some strong, interesting books to appear on the list over the years, including Bernhard Schlink's "The Reader," a stark, ambiguous German novel about a man who struggles with guilt and forgiveness upon discovering that the woman he loves was a brutal concentration-camp guard during the war. Anita Shreve's "The Pilot's Wife" is a good, substantial piece of work, as is Jane Hamilton's "The Book of Ruth." But the salient qualities of these books aren't their raw worth as literature -- they are, respectively, "the Holocaust," "women" and "women."

And these are, of course, important subjects. But aside from "The Reader" and Ursula Hegi's "Stones From the River," which represent an odd trend toward sympathy for the German side of the Holocaust, it doesn't require much greatness of soul or much hard thinking -- it doesn't, in short, entail much potential for improvement -- for an audience composed almost entirely of women to identify with the travails of sympathetic feminine characters. Even Hitler, after all, was committed to the idea of justice for, and fair treatment of, people like Hitler.

And then comes the question of art. Anita Shreve is not, and will never be, Danielle Steele. And since the reading of good books is considered virtuous in itself -- since it's considered more inherently virtuous in America than, say, the decorative arts or the ceremonies surrounding the drinking of hot beverages -- even people who'd gleefully hang Martha Stewart from the rafters of the last, burning Starbucks outlet are quick to defend Oprah's Book Club on artistic grounds. It might be a bit silly on the surface, everyone seems to say, but -- by God! -- it's getting America to read literary fiction. It's made heartland superstars out of Danticat, Shreve, Hamilton. America is reading again. Reading!

To which, let's pose a difficult question: So what? Certain publishing companies might be making pots of money from the Book Club phenomenon, and certain authors -- some of whom richly deserve it -- might've been catapulted into an incredible pitch of wealth and stardom. But the great, eldritch power of literature isn't in books themselves, or in the base process of reading them. It's in the spark of abiding curiosity that honest writing can kindle in you, if you're prepared to trust it and to follow it halfway into its own premises. Literature -- even bad, honest literature -- changes you once you've experienced it well and fully. It makes you restive and always slightly hungry. It makes you feel not bigger, but incalculably smaller, because you're forced to realize that there are entire worlds -- locked up in distorted bits and fragments -- in more books than you'll ever have time to open.

But while Oprah's club members are reading a lot of Oprah books, there's no sign that they're branching off to read anything else in any great profusion -- no fiction, nonfiction or magazines. Apparently, all they're curious to read is what Oprah suggests to them. "It won't take you a long time," Oprah assured her audience upon launching Breena Clarke's novel. "I'm sure you're going to enjoy it as a family drama and also as an intimate glimpse into a time and place that we don't often hear about. It's set around 1920 ... 1925, in Georgetown in D.C. ... If you are in D.C., you are really going to love it because you'll know all the landmarks."

Clarke's current Amazon ranking is 35. Meanwhile, not a single, solitary person has ever ordered William W. Brown's classic novel "Clotel, or, the President's Daughter," a family drama written in 1853 by a black abolitionist author -- and set, like Clarke's story, amid the landmarks of Washington. There's a new edition due to come out any day now -- and while Oprah is currently flogging a licensing deal with Starbucks, purveyors of haute-middlebrow specialty products to D.C. and the world, good money says that not 1 percent of her club members will ever hear of the publication of "Clotel," from her or from anyone else. Brown's book is old, unfashionable. It's full of archaic expressions and locutions. It doesn't address any contemporary issues. It's hard. And unless Oprah herself decides to hoist it before the world, it won't exist for her club in any real sense.

Still, compared to Clarke's book, Brown's is a masterpiece -- and as someone recently said, "It won't take you a long time." What takes a long time is getting through the next dozen interesting books, and then the dozens after that. And once you start down that path, you quickly discover that you don't have much time to waste on TV talk shows anymore, or any great incentive to pay attention when celebrities try to dictate your opinions about the world.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Gavin McNett

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books National Book Awards Oprah Winfrey