Response Paper To Reading Oprah Buffy Hamilton July 2005


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Response Paper To Reading Oprah Buffy Hamilton July 2005

  1. 1. Hamilton 1 Buffy Hamilton ELAN 8005 Response Paper: Reading Oprah July 17, 2005 In Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads, Cecilia Konchar Farr, Professor of English and Women‟s Studies at the College of St. Catherine, analyzes the popularity of the Oprah Book Club and its implications for how and why Americans read. In spite of the dismissal, disapproval, and outright disregard from academe ,from segments of the mainstream press, and members of higher education (24-26), Farr maintains that Oprah has been able to achieve what teachers, librarians, and professors have not: “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). Farr maintains that Oprah‟s success lies in her attunement to what real Americans want and practice as readers: “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 Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  2. 2. Hamilton 2 American tradition of novel reading for literacy and social mobility, a tradition that continues to appeal to deeply held democratic values”(97). In other words, readers are not reading books to reproduce “cultural capital” or to attain literacy as an economic commodity, but reading is an act that is an act of democracy because readers are acting as individuals who make their own reading choices and are not relying upon what “high art” or academia deems as “appropriate” reading, nor are they reading to engage in a critical literary close reading. Instead, reading is an opportunity to connect with others, to challenge ideas, and to thoughtfully reflect. In the first chapter, Farr explores the roots of the Oprah Book Club. In the tradition of self-improvement, Oprah created the book club as part of her efforts to shift the focus of her show from sensationalism to social responsibility and self-improvement (31). According to Farr, Oprah chose to create a book club because books had been a springboard for self-transformation in her own life and because, like many teachers and professors, she wanted, “…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). Critical to the success of the book club was the choice of books. Oprah frequently alternated choices that set up a pattern reflecting the two primary functions of literature for readers: to educate and entertain (14). While it would Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  3. 3. Hamilton 3 have been easy for Oprah to have chosen light, “fluffy”, and formulaic novels, she took risks, choosing books considered to be challenging as well as books by first time writers and African American writers even though her audience was predominantly white female middle-class (20-22). Equally important to the success of the book club was Oprah‟s ability to engage in authentic talk about novels, talk that author Toni Morrison asserts is, “…essential to their [the books] full realization as novels”(31). Why is this kind of talk so often silenced in our classrooms? Why do students view reading as something silent and solitary? Why is the “talking life” of novels denied so regularly in literature curriculum? In each episode devoted the discussion of the book, Oprah did not rely upon a standard script of traditional questions one might hear in an English class; instead, she began with her readers‟ responses to the text and then modeled how to foray deeper into the text; she also modeled how she as a real reader reveled in re-reading and asserted there was never a final reading or a “correct” reading (40-49). Imagine if in American classrooms, talk about books and literature was like that of the Oprah Book Club. What kind of readers would be shaped by these kinds of experiences? Would more Americans see reading as something vital to a more fulfilling life, motivated by the intrinsic lure of reading a way of participating in a democracy and Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  4. 4. Hamilton 4 rather than literacy extrinsically motivated and as a tool for survival in a capitalistic society? Imagine that in a high school classroom on any given day in any given location in the United States, teachers and students discovering together, “…how books could speak to them and how they could, in return, have conversation with books”(41). Whereas most traditional literature classrooms, “…usually focus almost exclusively on reflective, intellectual approaches, Oprah‟s Book Club…develops its own hybrid approach to reading…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… The lesson is to trust your own reading while trusting others to expand that reading in conversation”(45-49). Echoes of my readings of Brandt and Manguel resonated in Farr‟s exploration of the history of the novel in America in Chapter 2. Farr traces the “middlebrow” origins of novel reading in the United States, citing middlebrow as a “class conscious concept” (35) and middlebrow novels as means of self-improvement and mobility to move up from one‟s own social class (35). This history is important because it sets up a structure and purpose for reading that will essentially be the blueprint for the Oprah Book Club that comes 100 years later (57). What was especially interesting and enlightening for me in this chapter was the idea of books as a means of not only negotiating social Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  5. 5. Hamilton 5 classes, but also as a means of “bucking the system” and undermining the established high culture. Farr asserts that the advent and proliferation of middlebrow literacy helped those outside the privileged class use novels in particular as “…the means to blur class distinctions in the United States 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). Are current literature curriculum practices designed to subvert democracy and to keep certain groups “in their place”? What would public education look like in America if students both within and outside of the dominant class viewed the reading of novels in this light? The beginning of the end of reading so often occurs during the middle and high school years when students are forming their identity and so often enjoy challenging the beliefs and practices of the world (particularly the adult world), yet this should be the time Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  6. 6. Hamilton 6 when adolescents use books to assert their voices and place in society. Would AYP continue to be an issue in public schools if those in the “failing subgroups” engaged in literacy experiences that helped them see books and reading as a way of changing those socioeconomic boundaries, books and novels as a way to participate in a democracy and make their voices heard? I can only wonder if Deborah Brandt views this type of literacy experience and the influence of Oprah‟s Book Club as a positive and empowering literacy sponsor. According to Farr, the flourishing of the middlebrow novel created a reading revolution that created a, “…fascinating circle, then, [in which] 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). Just as a reading revolution took place in the early late 1800s and early 1900s, could one take place in the twenty first century if literature teachers of all ages follow Oprah‟s lead and begin 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 knapsacks…”(50-51)? Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  7. 7. Hamilton 7 Another concept that stood out for me in this reading was Farr‟s discussion of the term “oprahfication”, a term coined to “…describe the titillating public discussion of the personal, the disclosure of private emotion for mass consumption on national TV”(53) and how Oprah‟s Book Club implies, “„…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). Again, the tensions of competing definitions and philosophies of reading are evident in this loaded term, “oprahfication.” Even in high school classrooms, fellow English teachers, parents, and sometimes even students ridicule an English teacher who teaches reading and literature outside the mainstream traditional way that objectifies a text as an object with a single and static meaning. Teachers who do not fall in line with the traditional practices of the literature curriculum are often perceived and labeled as “soft,” “easy,” “touchy-feely,” and essentially incompetent; they are also viewed as dangerous and sometimes even subversive. Yet Farr argues that Oprah‟s Book Club emphasis on the social aspects of shared reading as legitimate, effective, and valid, affirming, “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 Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  8. 8. Hamilton 8 the lingering presence of other group members‟ voices. 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). While some critics dismiss the validity of Oprah‟s Book Club and her influence as self-promotion and the commercialization of books, they often fail to mention that Oprah does not profit from the sales of the books she chooses; yes, she often does have an agenda of social consciousness, but what English teacher or professor does not have a thematic focus or theoretical lens that serves as an agenda for how they teach books and reading? Farr readily admits that the Oprah Book Club is guilty of “oprahfication”, but in her view, “oprahfication” is a positive act in the tradition of women in the 1900s using books in the same manner for engendering social change and ultimately, women‟s place in society. Farr emphatically concludes that, “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. Oprah, the Queen of Daytime TV, teaches reading skills more widely and more effectively than the professionals, in part because she earns the right every day as she models life skills, even survival skills for her viewers…she Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  9. 9. Hamilton 9 navigated the novel‟s society territory with her cherished favorite books in hand and got us reading again. Reading and talking”(72). I believe that those who sneer at Oprah‟s practices envy her dual possession of both economic and cultural capital. Once again, the derogatory use of the term “oprahfication” reflects tensions in how literacy is produced and used in America. Most Americans would say reading is important, yet those of the cultural elite are threatened by mass numbers of Americans reading without the guidance and direction of so-called “experts” who view themselves as “serious readers” (75-88). What is so threatening about a proliferation in Americans using novels and reading for entertainment and education? For Americans from all walks of life to actively choose what to read and to reject the teachings and recommendations of these “experts” is to diminish the cultural capital of the “cultural elite” and in effect, threaten the existing power structure that seeks to reproduce and value a particular set of values. In light of Farr‟s definition of “oprahfication,” I would be glad to be guilty of “oprahfying” books in my classroom practices. In conclusion, this reading reinforced my understandings from this semester‟s earlier readings as well as my prior readings of Sumara and Rosenblatt. While Farr does point out some shortcomings and flaws with some practices of particular episodes of the Oprah Book Club, her Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  10. 10. Hamilton 10 thoughtful analysis of the roots and history of the kinds of reading practices reflected in the Book Club gives credence to Oprah‟s work and educators a model to follow if we really do seek to encourage lifelong reading and to discover practices of adult readers that we hope to nurture in the adolescents who enter our classrooms each year. As teachers of reading and literature, we cannot continue to cling to traditional practices and philosophies; we must not be afraid to embrace change because: "…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. Indeed, 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. 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…Despite these efforts [of the literary elite of critics like Harold Bloom], 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. 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. (90-92) Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  11. 11. Hamilton 11 I am looking forward to my upcoming readings in the fall that will help me continue to explore and critique the Oprah Book Club as a literacy sponsor in American lives. Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton
  12. 12. Hamilton 12 References Farr, C. (2005). Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club changed the way America reads. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. Response to Reading Oprah All work © 2005 Buffy Hamilton