Reading Notes For Reading Oprah Buffy Hamilton July 16 2005
July 16, 2005
Reading Notes: Reading Oprah
Introduction: Oprah’s Reading Revolution
“She pushed solitary readers and alienated writers into the
background and gave the novel back its social history…Oprah
gave the novel back its talking life”(1-2).
“…Oprah‟s influence on book sales and patterns of consumption
for American book buyers was hard to ignore”(3).
Chapter 1: Reading Oprah
“…self-improvement, in the American tradition, has always
included reading good books”(9).
“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”(9).
“This pattern these first two novels set revealed Oprah‟s
commitment „to enlighten and as well as entertain….‟ ”(14).
“The Book Club placed Oprah in the role of cultural critic and
arbiter of taste”(14).
Two primary functions of literature: to educate and entertain
“…critics have wrangled over this sometimes contradictory pair in
their effort to name what reading should do for us. And I have
worked this sometimes contradictory pair in their effort to name
what reading should do for us”(14).
Between 1996 and 2002, “…not a week went by that there
wasn‟t at least on Oprah book listed [on the New York Times
bestseller lists]---not one week for nearly six years”(16).
Oprah took risks in choosing first time writers and novels by
African American writers. She was not choosing novels for
personal profit (20-21).
“Still, for a largely white audience in an industry dominated by
white writers, this is a significant inroad and one that
demonstrates, again, that Oprah had a meaningful agenda for
the Book Club. She could have focused on light fiction by well-
known writers and created blockbusters every time. She could
have stuck with nonfiction self-help and been influential. She
could have played to the comfort zone of a white, middle-class
audience. But she didn‟t” (22).
“For me, book reviews are a revealing barometer of U.S.
culture…We [American women] buy more novels, read more
novels, and write more novels. But literature is one place
where, even in the United States, more isn‟t better. More is
worse. Less is better. While commercial literary success has
been largely a feminine sphere, excellence has traditionally been
defined as the lack of commercial success—and it has been
defined as masculine”(24).
“For some reason, there has been a chasm between what we
read---for pleasure, for fun, for entertainment---and what we
value, critically praise, or teach in literature classes”(24).
The educated European-American men who were the elite,
particularly in the East, “…controlled the means of
“…look at how the vast majority of the cultural elite responded to
Oprah's considerable influence on what Americans read…even
now, Oprah is rarely mentioned at scholarly conferences or in
“Even in the popular press, the tone when discussing Oprah is
generally less than respectful”(26).
“She blurs the lines between art and capitalism, discretion and
consumerism. She is building a cult of personality…It is this
version of a democratic spirit that carried Oprah to the heights of
success…She reaches people and challenges them to read. And
better yet, they take up her challenge”(27).
Chapter 2: Oprah Reading
“In this world that Oprah invokes, reading retains the aura of
the radical act it was, an aura that has colored the
relationship of African Americans to Western notions of
literacy for centuries…reading was a coveted skill, one that
many black authors describe longing for in the earliest slave
narratives and memoirs”(31).
“…talking about novels is essential to their full realization as
“Little wonder, then, that at the precise moment when Oprah
tighten the focus of her talk show onto social responsibility,
when she let that focus redirect and reenergize her show, she
would seize that same moment to embark on a national
“The connection between social responsibility and literature
must also have been self-evident for Oprah, who grew up
immersed in texts from the Anglo-African literary
“…a program of serious reading has been our preferred path
to self-improvement and class mobility. Reading in the
Untied States is, in iconic terms, the way west”(33).
“How to traverse from low to high culture via middle-brow
mechanisms? The answer was not in my self-help books. For
me, as for so many Americans, the answer was novel
Middlebrow---class conscious concept. “Middlebrow was, in
short, quintessentially American. It was about selling class
mobility by selling culture”(35). Novels were often in this
“In fact, novels provided the means to blur class distinctions
in the United State very early on…but because even women
and the uneducated could (and did) read them, novels were
also suspect from the beginning. And the uneducated did not
just read them. They wrote them. White women and African
Americans, with little or no access to formal education, were
such popular writers in the nineteenth-century United States
that Hawthorne and Melville tried to imitate them. Now that,
later critics chafed, was too much. Evidently novels were
too blatant an assertion of democracy of free choice
without the mediation of the educated elite who has
been explaining the Bible and poetry to us for
“Novels are good, then, if they are good for you, if they pass
the time usefully rather than wastefully; if they are about
educating as well as entertaining”(37).
“In a fascinating circle, then, readers were drawn to novels
because they were entertaining, while the popularity of novels
drew more people, even disenfranchised people, to become
literate by reading them…In short, reading, once the
enterprise only of the educated elite, met democracy head on
in American novels and, perhaps as much as any political
force, launched the middle-class nation we would
“Oprah is plainly establishing a pattern for the Book Club to
both entertain and educate as we have seen….she set out…to
both sell and teach reading”(40).
“That the book had something „to say‟ connects talking and
reading in a way that makes reading more accessible for this
less experienced reader. This causal turn of a phrase speaks
volumes about Oprah‟s Book Club. It demonstrates how
Oprah lured hundreds of thousands of new readers in by
showing them how books could speak to them and how they
could, in return, have conversation with books”(41).
Oprah first focuses on them connecting with the book
emotionally….then moves to there being more to reading
novels than just connecting….moves to showing how to read
“But where literature classes usually focus almost exclusively
on reflective, intellectual approaches, Oprah‟s Book
Club…develops its own hybrid approach to reading”(45).
Talk reading---Oprah models. “Oprah simply wants her
readers to come away, as she does, with a way into the novel
and the desire to plumb its depths, to reread and talk about
“…Winfrey and Morrison are not so much demonstrating how
to read THIS book as they are talking about how to read,
Philosophy of “no final reading”(48).
“….a constant insistence on openness, participating, and
involvement, a decided focus on the social aspects of reading.
The meeting concludes not with closure but with
inspiration…the lesson is not to rely on authorities, not to, in
effect, „take a class.‟ The lesson is to trust your own reading
while trusting others to expand that reading in
“…I always found Oprah navigating this singular reading
territory of her own in all three modes---reflective,
empathetic, and inspirational”(51).
“This meeting of modes sets Oprah‟s Book club apart at a
time when a fiercely competitive job market for English
professors has upped the ante on literary scholarship, forcing
many teachers to emphasize the distance between „reading
for fun‟ and “reading for class‟ and forcing scholars to
embrace a language of academic literary criticism that is
increasingly elitist, sometimes accessible only to a small
group of savvy insiders. With Morrison beside her, Winfrey
leads middlebrow reading into the borderlands of these
highbrow academic modes, to criticism, to delighting in poetic
language and in the subtleties of narratives. Then she
marches back confidently to comfortable popular modes, to
identification, to embracing characters and life lessons, and to
listening with her readers to what novels „have to say.‟ And
in doing this, she begins to map a social reading
territory, a public space that had been increasingly
abandoned in the last century but one that ambitious
Americans once lit out for with books in their
Chapter 3: Readers Talking
The word “oprahfication” was coined, “to describe the titillating
public discussion of the personal, the disclosure of private
emotion for mass consumption on national TV”(53).
“Even the name „Oprah‟s Book Club‟ suggests a shady talk show
aesthetic that erases the lines between appropriate an
inappropriate, public and private. It implies that reading has a
social function, an implication quite different form the traditional,
high cultural idea of reading as an individual intellectual
“…but studying social reading has convinced me that the choice
of books, the purpose of the reading, and its results can be
collective to the extent that Bloom‟s distinction between social
and selfish becomes irrelevant. There is no solitary praxis for
book group members. Even HOW we read when we‟re alone,
what we notice and what questions we ask, is affected by the
lingering presence of other group members‟ voices”(54).
“By reading, and reading well together, book group members
challenge one another to think differently, to think critically, and
to connect, to build community”(54).
“Literary societies and women‟s club…claimed a key place in U.S.
history as initiator of social and religious reform, political action
and cultural change, of abolition, prohibition, and women‟s
“These women‟s clubs provided the structure for Oprah‟s
middlebrow book club just as surely as the American tradition of
novel reading provided its solid foundation. From overstuffed
couches and lush carpets, to closely read texts and carefully
prepared food, Oprah‟s Book club, like other contemporary book
groups unconsciously take son the exact characteristics of the
literary variations of these earlier improvement societies”(57).
Contrast between atmosphere of learning and women in these
groups in someone‟s home or library vs. the classroom
Dual focus on book and the reading community it engenders
“Previously, the conversations I held with my books were a quiet
dialogue. There were just two voices, mine and the book‟s. It
was nothing like the communion that goes on now---full of
exclamations, impassioned please, confession and campaigning,
enlightenment, and exchange”(59).
Conversation and community (59).
“Reading is solitary, but that‟s not its only life. It should have a
talking a life, a discourse that follows”(60).
“Oprah‟s Book Club aims for this sort of communion, extending
novels beyond their solitary life into their talking life where they
perform a vital social function”(60).
“Without a doubt, this social dimension of novels, their talking
life, is what motivates Oprah‟s Book Club meetings. In this
context, though, books are often deployed specifically in the
service of self-improvement or social change. And while I
sometimes find that admirable, I also recognize that this is what
many perceive as the oprahfication of books”(60).
“What do we value: the novel‟s formal aesthetic qualities---the
langue, the characterizations---the images---or the work it does,
its effect on the reader, it active engagement in the central
issues of our time? Can we (should we) value both?”(62)
“…the history of the novel, a genre that has always claimed a
Oprah‟s Book Club as a reflection of American celebrity culture
and the American story---woman going through tough
circumstances and triumphs a better and happy person….rags to
riches story (64-66).
“The best novels can take days, years, even a lifetime to think
and talk through. And Oprah often reinforces this point, talking
about second and third rereadings, even as she directs her
audience to the theme at hand”(66).
Oprah‟s novels do have themes but so did English professors and
their classes (66).
“But despite it all, Winfrey does good work with the Book Club,
work professional educators and critics have failed to on a scale
anywhere near this one”(72).
“On the Book Club, novels ARE „oprahfied‟, they have a talking
life. In the American tradition, they „enlighten as well as
entertain.‟ And in the tradition of the novel, they enthusiastically
embrace their social function”(72).
“With her Oprah novels, Winfrey traverses middlebrow territory
from low to high, pulling in readers, from the tentative to the
self-assured. Oprah, the Queen of Daytime TV, teaches reading
skills more widely and more effectively than the professionals, in
part because she earn the right every day as she models life
skills, even survival skills for her viewers…she navigated the
novel‟s society territory with her cherished favorite books in
hand and got us reading again. Reading and talking”(72-73).
Chapter 4: Talking Readers
Stigma of Oprah seal on book---some fear people will
perceive them as mindless and watching TV all day if caught
reading a book with the “O” on the book, yet that symbol
helps sell the books (75-77).
“For those „in the high-art literary tradition,‟ the oprahfication
of books was never just about the middlebrow status of the
novels or the confessional talk show slant to some of the
literary discussions. Rather it was about the commodification
of books, how Oprah transforms books into consumer
products, indistinguishable from microwaves of DVD players”
“Yet, taken outside the context of Oprah‟s marketing success,
many of the Oprah novels are, again, aesthetically excellent
by academic standards, claiming unquestionable high art
literary clout….Cultural theorists give context to this divide
with their distinction between economic capital, how much
money you have, and cultural capital, how „classy‟ you
Idea of jobs having cultural capital but not economic…social
“Things get really murky when we take books that have
cultural capital and try to get them out to more people, thus
turning them into consumer products to be bought and
“Publishes…treat one as art and the other as commerce; one
gets prestige, the other money. But within the world of
Oprah, they are equals…”(79).
“Serious readers had been trying to resolve these conflicting
values sine Oprah‟s Book Club became a phenomenon. As a
culture, we were placing increasing emphasis on literacy. Yet,
when Oprah publicly demonstrated the joys of reading and
encourages millions of people to make time for good novels,
why weren‟t serious readers, professors, and teachers the
first to jump on the Oprah bandwagon? Instead of „You go,
girl,” we were saying, „I read that before Oprah chose it‟ and
removing the Oprah seal from our books. Those of us who
love reading like to thin that books aren‟t just stuff, and
choosing good ones is fundamentally different from finding
the perfect pair of black pants. It‟s a deeper, more
intellectual, even spiritual enterprise”(80).
Oprah models rich reading publicly and models public reading
Oprah associates fine living with reading (81-82).
p. 82---professors taught American literature to reproduce
More popular club became (more economic capital
accumulated) the more the cultural capital diminished (83).
pp. 84-85 literary critics wrote books that told people exactly
how read books.
p. 86-87—concept of reading list as telling people what they
ought to read and what is culturally “high”…when you find
yourself understanding these as we tell you and wanting to
read them, then you have attained “good taste.”
“In this way, the distinction between cultural and economic
capital is maintained by relentlessly divorcing them from one
"But as books are ever more readily available, as literacy
rates rise and more of us invest in a college education, these
old lists and their outworn standards are not enough. In
deed, I sometimes wonder how they survived for song in a
democratic nation. Sure, they simplify our choices, but what
do they leave out…..Everything around us has changed in the
last thirty years in the United States, but The List and the
elite standards that maintain it have stayed surprisingly the
same. With the rise of social change movement like civil
rights and feminism, readers like my students began
demanding more connection to their lives, more relevance in
“Oprah understood what students have been saying for years
but what many professors an arbiters of taste in our culture
have failed do grasp---that today‟s world demands a different
approach to books and to reading. If nothing else is apparent
from a close reading of Oprah‟s Book Club, it is certainly clear
that America doesn‟t read like it used to---though Bloom‟s
HOW TO READ AND WHY typifies the attempts of many
professors to correct that. Despite these efforts, Americans
aren‟t going to books seeking classical allusions and
Shakespearean quotes as affirmations of our expensive
education or cultural literacy, our superiors understating or
“Reflecting the tenor of the times, many critics argue, as I
have here, that reading is a social as well as solitary activity.
We see reading not so much as the traditionalists do, as
building a solid foundation for the preservation of culture and
unexamined common values. For us it as much about
challenging and reconstructing (sometimes deconstructing)
culture and value in the midst of momentous change”(91).
“Oprah‟s Book Club demonstrates that this perspective is a
more accurate reflection of where most reading Americans
have gone. The Book Club invites readers to talk to each
other over books, to share stories, to identify and empathize,
to explore new life patterns, and even to change. By
emphasizing the novel‟s talking life, Oprah affirms a
democratic shift in what readers value in books”(92).
“Trust readers. This mantra probably springs from a
commercial base---these readers are the people who have
made her rich after all—but it has translated into a broad
affirmation of democratic values in a realm where such values
are rarely seen, the realm of the aesthetic”(94).
pp. 95---Oprah innovative because all voices valued, not just
“Oprah‟s Book Club was a phenomenal success because it
recognize and embraced how most Americans read and value
literature. Oprah‟s unique position in popular culture, and
yes, capitalism allowed her to answer the call to give books a
public form, to place them in social contexts, and to take
advantage of their power to connect us. The Book Club
latched onto a book club movement already gathering
strength, especially among U.S. women, and took full
advantage of its ties to a long-standing American
tradition of novel reading for literacy and social
mobility, a tradition that continues to appeal to deeply
held democratic values”(97).
Conclusion: The Triumph of Cultural Democracy
freedom and individuality, democratic age---Oprah reminds us
that we are powerful, make our own choices, can choose our
“So when Oprah started recommending novels, it seemed like a
small step for Oprah viewers. In truth, it was a leap for
literature, a leap into cultural democracy”(101).
“Cultural democracy is founded on aesthetic freedom….takes the
political tenets of democracy into the personal realm and founds
aesthetic value on individual choice rather than on absolute
“In general, Americans negotiate aesthetic freedom much as we
do moral freedom by finding tentative values that work for us,
borrowing them from whatever cultural sources appeal”(102).
p. 102---context of book…what might be great for book club
could flop in a literature class and vice-versa.
p. 107---disagreement embraced for independent thinking