Examining how Oprah Winfrey persuaded a TV nation to read

Conversations

April 10, 2005|By Julia Keller | Julia Keller,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

In 1996, fabulously popular talk-show host Oprah Winfrey made reading all the rage when she created her book club. The initial incarnation - spotlighting the work of authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Wally Lamb and Jacquelyn Mitchard - lasted until 2002, when a weary Winfrey called it quits, returning to the book theme a year later with a plan to pick only classics.

Now Kathleen Rooney, 25, has come along to tell us what it all meant. Reading With Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America (University of Arkansas Press, $24.95), is an earnestly argued look at what worked - and what didn't - in Winfrey's brave attempt to raise the collective brow of her fans.

Among the episodes that Rooney covers is the 2001 fracas over Winfrey's selection of Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections, a pick that Franzen greeted with snobbish disdain.

From her home in Boston, where she teaches at Emerson College, Rooney chatted recently about Oprah's impact, and the marketing of her own book.

You're 25. You're supposed to be sneering at traditional books. Why'd you want to write about a book club?

I've always been fascinated by how various genres and media intersect. I was fascinated by the way Oprah managed to take television and promote literature. So many people think the two media are in conflict.

You just sat down and dug in?

Actually, I was attending George Washington University and wanted to spend my junior year abroad. I wrote my admissions essay to get into Oxford on TV and literature.

What made you realize you'd picked a fertile topic?

This whole project has had this pleasing serendipity. I was in the audience [of The Oprah Winfrey Show] on the day [in 2002] she announced it was over, when she handed out the final Toni Morrison book and said it was over.

She re-launched the book club at Anderson's Books in Naperville [Ill.] in June 2003. I grew up [nearby] and I worked at the bookstore when I was home for summer from college.

How'd you research Reading With Oprah?

I read every single book Oprah ever selected. ... There were 46 - I didn't count the non-fiction. I focused on adult contemporary fiction. It was an absorbent phase.

At first, I was on the side of those who were skeptical. There's a common misconception that she had a particular type of book she picked. You can pick out patterns. But she didn't pick just one kind. It was diverse. She'd pick [a book by] Anita Shreve and then Bernard Schlink's The Reader [a German novel about a young man's love affair with a woman later prosecuted for Nazi war crimes].

Tell us some of your conclusions.

I think for one thing, it showed this hunger for intellectual satisfaction in the American public that a lot of people hadn't acknowledged. Oprah showed that people do want to read. She showed that television doesn't have to be lowbrow.

Any downside to Oprah's Book Club?

My one critique was that it was on TV. The discussions weren't really discussions. [Author] Sue Miller pointed out that it's really more of a commercial.

But on the whole, it was positive?

Oprah says there's not just one right kind of person or one kind of book. That gets rid of a lot of elitism and snobbery. You don't have to be a college professor to love literature.

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