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Buffy Hamilton
ELAN 8005
July 16, 2005
Reading Notes: Reading Oprah

Introduction: Oprah’s Reading Revolution
     “She pu...
novels, and write more novels. But literature is one place
  where, even in the United States, more isn‟t better. More is
...
“…a program of serious reading has been our preferred path
to self-improvement and class mobility. Reading in the
Untied S...
showing them how books could speak to them and how they
could, in return, have conversation with books”(41).
Oprah first f...
Americans once lit out for with books in their
         knapsacks…”(50-51).

Chapter 3: Readers Talking
    The word “opra...
Conversation and community (59).
“Reading is solitary, but that‟s not its only life. It should have a
talking a life, a di...
Chapter 4: Talking Readers

     Stigma of Oprah seal on book---some fear people will
     perceive them as mindless and w...
Oprah associates fine living with reading (81-82).
p. 82---professors taught American literature to reproduce
cultural cap...
challenging and reconstructing (sometimes deconstructing)
        culture and value in the midst of momentous change”(91)....
p. 102---context of book…what might be great for book club
could flop in a literature class and vice-versa.
p. 107---disag...
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Reading Notes For Reading Oprah Buffy Hamilton July 16 2005

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Transcript of "Reading Notes For Reading Oprah Buffy Hamilton July 16 2005"

  1. 1. Buffy Hamilton ELAN 8005 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 (14). “…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
  2. 2. 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 production”(24). “…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 literary journals…”(25). “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 novels”(31). “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 reading project”(31). “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 tradition”(31-32).
  3. 3. “…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 reading”(35). 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 category. “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 centuries”(36-37). “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 become”(38). “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
  4. 4. 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 reflectively”(42-43). “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 it”(46). “…Winfrey and Morrison are not so much demonstrating how to read THIS book as they are talking about how to read, period”(46). 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 conversation”(49). “…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
  5. 5. Americans once lit out for with books in their knapsacks…”(50-51). 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 pursuit…”(53-54). “…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 suffrage”(56). “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 atmosphere (57). Dual focus on book and the reading community it engenders (57-58). “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).
  6. 6. 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 social function”(63). 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).
  7. 7. 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” (78). “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 are”(78). Idea of jobs having cultural capital but not economic…social distinction 78. “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 sold”(79). “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 richly (81).
  8. 8. Oprah associates fine living with reading (81-82). p. 82---professors taught American literature to reproduce cultural capital. 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 another”(88). "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 their literature”(90). “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 elite sensibilities”(91). “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
  9. 9. 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 the author. “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 own books(99-101). “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 principles”(102). “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).
  10. 10. 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

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