Booked out

April 11, 2002

IF YOU BELIEVE that television is a natural enemy of the written word, then you'd have to acknowledge the joyous irony in the fact that Oprah Winfrey, one of the boob tube's biggest stars, had proved such a grand promoter of books in particular, and reading in general.

The end of her book club, which used her star power to catapult worthy books to previously elusive popularity, is a shame for Americans, the literary world and TV.

Ms. Winfrey's book club was a smashing success by almost any literary measure. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, for example, sold 100,000 copies the year she won the Nobel Prize, but when Ms. Winfrey picked it for her club, it sold 800,000 in a month.

Publishers came to love the boost in sales that inevitably followed Ms. Winfrey's imprimatur. Authors salivated over the prospect of increased exposure for their work.

Television benefited, too. Rather than indulging self-obsession or pop psychology, Ms. Winfrey's shows about the books she picked sparked meaningful conversations about substantive topics. The shows were more "heady" than emotional, setting them apart from the pap that flits across the screen for most of the day.

Sadly, some reports suggest that may have been the problem with the club. Viewership for the book shows didn't keep pace with those about relationships or cooking. Ms. Winfrey has said she won't continue the club because she can't find enough titles she can honestly recommend to her viewers, but some have speculated that's a cover for the real reason: ratings.

It's worth noting, though, that Ms. Winfrey had the right idea with her club, whether she knows it or not.

The power of books -- and literature, in particular -- is their ability to start us talking and thinking, about who we are, the world we live in, and what we might aspire to be. Fewer people are reading books, so fewer of those thoughts and conversations are taking place. Ms. Winfrey's club was a small attempt to reverse that trend, to inspire those who prefer viewing to reading to expand their horizons.

There have been other similar efforts, notably campaigns in some cities to get everyone reading one book and then discussing its meaning and implications.

But Ms. Winfrey's stardom gave her club punch and influence that can't be matched. Television, already without much value, will have less to offer without Ms. Winfrey's efforts.

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