With the launch of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club on Sep. 17, 1996, no one single person has done more to nudge a huge segment of the American population toward the land of books.
In the 42 months that have passed since Jacquelyn Mitchard's "The Deep End of the Ocean" was upheld as the first Oprah Book Club selection, the publishing industry has undergone a revolution. Every Oprah pick has become an instant best seller. Bookstore owners report more traffic through their stores. Private book clubs have been started across the country. Oprah-lucky authors have been transformed into sudden, bankable stars.
But just as Oprah has been busy celebrating language and re-energizing publishing, the media have been busy chipping away at her once inviolable reputation.
As reigns of American greatness go, hers, in many ways, has been unprecedented. Born into a hard-scrabble life on a farm in Mississippi, tossed between households, abused, sucked in and down by the wrong sort of crowd, she fought back -- metamorphosing into an orator, a news anchor, an actress, a philanthropist, the star of the highest-rated talk show in television history, the owner of her own production company.
Now in its 13th season of syndication, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" attracts some 33 million viewers each week; bandies about on matters of soul, spirit, personal success; launches crusades "to make the world a better place."
Few words are as golden, from the commercial perspective, as Oprah's. No other pulpit or preacher shares Oprah's power to ordain the high priests and priestesses of our culture.
And so it follows -- it is the American way -- that Oprah finds herself under attack. Anti-Oprah editorials proliferate, anti-Oprah chatrooms zing and hum, one hears a hiss in the supermarket lines. Last fall, many of the attackers focused on Oprah's evangelizing "Change Your Life TV."
I think the more interesting prattle centers on books. So turn back time and revel, for a moment, in the fall of 1996, when Oprah's on-air reading club debuted.
Her purpose, Oprah told Publishers Weekly a few months later, was to get the country excited about books. "I feel strongly that, no matter who you are, reading opens doors and provides, your own personal sanctuary," she was quoted as saying. "I want books to become part of my audience's lifestyle, for reading to become a natural phenomenon with them, so that it is no longer a big deal."
You don't need to know much about Oprah to believe that her desire to get passive viewers actively reading springs from a genuine heart.
Here is a fellow human being who, in her own estimation, was literally rescued by books -- by "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," by "Jubilee," by "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
Here is a fellow traveler who found, within the bound volume, companionship, kinship, melody, light, anger, disillusionment, devastation, resurrection, explanation, hope. Books excited, broadened, haunted her. They gave her roots as well as wings.
And one might argue that this is all for the good, but then again, once must reckon with the band of anti-loyalists who have grown indignant at the books Oprah "made" them read. For kicks some time, on a rainy afternoon, trawl through the customer comments on the Internet bookseller, Amazon.com.
"Come on, Oprah, you can pick better books than this," complained a reader of "Where the Heart Is." "What was Oprah thinking?" asked a reader of "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day." "Oprah should submit some more good books as I am losing patience with most of them," opined an embittered reader of "Breath, Eyes, Memory."
If you don't have time for Amazon, check into the I Believe I Will Run On and Get Away From Oprah Web site http://members.home.net/tcoble/oprah. htm, which, among other things, has, in an act of self-applauded "defiance" -- started a virtual book club all its own, choosing "A Prayer for Owen Meany" as its seminal discussion piece. Or ask your Oprah friends what they are reading lately, and you're bound to hear, a self-congratulatory note in their voices, that they've begun choosing their own books these days, thank you so much.
At the end of the millennium, in this home of the profoundly free, Americans excel, more than we should, at canceling out our own extremes. Think politics. Think culture. Think heroes. William Jefferson Clinton is impeached, and what's the prize? A jolt, in the upward direction, in his ratings. Dr. Laura bestsells the hell out of the Ten Commandments, and so -- a matter of course -- the internet circulates pornographic pix from her less-than-Godly youth. We worship the sacred streams from which our bottled water cometh, then toss the stubborn plastic into dumps that can hold no more.
The protest against Oprah, it seems, arises from the oppressive quality of her Book Club plots. And truth be told, they present a tyranny of trouble.