Friday, January 27, 2006

About Face

I'll admit it - I'm not above rubber necking. People who say they never look at the car accident as they drive by or stop to see the train wreck are dirty, dirty liars. Sorry, y'all are.

So it was with perverse glee that I saw this story on the Internet this morning. Yes, Oprah is doing an about face and is now saying she felt "dubbed" by James Frey's *ahem* memoir.

I think what they call this in public relation circles is saving face. Or maybe it's backpedalling. Whatever.

I'm obviously an awful, spiteful person for enjoying this particular train wreck, and I'm sure I'm going to be burning in hell for it. While I admire Oprah for what she has accomplished in her lifetime (self-made stories like hers are the American Dream), I never got her book club idea.

On the surface I guess it's a good thing that Oprah endorses books and attracts normally non-readers to reading. Then I stop and realize that this is exactly what is wrong with society today. If it takes a celebrity to get a person to read that doesn't say much about American society as a whole does it?

I have a theory that the vast majority of non-readers never are converted to full-time readers because of endorsements like Oprah's. They are told that Book A is the greatest, most moving story ever, and when they don't "get" it they feel somehow inferior. Even full-time readers are not immune to this guilt. Yes, I don't like Charles Dickens. There I said it! I'm a librarian who got a degree in British history and I don't like Charles Dickens!

I suddenly feel so free.

Those who aren't readers don't read because for years all the fun has been sucked out of the activity. We force students to read literature (cue snooty British accent here) in high school. Those who go on to college are forced to read more (I remember reading one book I enjoyed for one college course and that's it). So by the time we're out in the real world, taking care of spouses, taking care of kids, and working too damn much, the last thing we want to do is read. We've been taught that reading does not equal fun. So we turn on the TV and watch the latest insipid season of American Idol instead.

This spills over into the review scene as well. I'm a reviewer. I've endorsed books. I've panned books. But my name attached to my opinion does mean a whole lot to anybody. Who gives a flying fig what I think? All I do is offer an opinion. If a person can read my opinion and get something out of it, fine. Otherwise, feel free to ignore it and move on.

But Oprah has clout. A lot of it. And when she endorses anything from shampoo to books it means something to people. Frankly, it shouldn't - but that is the twisted nature of the cult of celebrity for you.

So my advice to library patrons has always been - Read What You Want. Reading should be fun. It shouldn't be a chore. Read what you want, not what somebody (anybody) tells you you should. And for God's sake don't apologize about it.


SamH said...

I agree. I think I know what you mean about Charles Dickens. I have worked in a library for 10 years and hold a degree in English Lit, but yet I cannot get into Jane Austen. I like to read about her and I like the movies based on her books. However, when I try to read one it's like to me she rambles so much I drift off. I try to read one of hers about every 5 years thinking maybe I just wasn't mature enough last time.

Anonymous said...

I have two opposite thoughts about this topic. On one hand I agree with you. It should not take a celebrity to get me to read a book. You are so totally correct. In Oprah's case I think that she has had a lifelong love and affinity toward reading and wants to share that with her audience. She has made no secret that books have changed her life and that is why I understand her bookclub. On the other hand if she turns one non-reader into a reader if only for that one book a month isn't that worth something? Even if the person hates the book isn't it better to think about the material than sit and watch TV? There have been many books assigned to me in school that I did not particularly like but I remember and think about them. And that has to count for something. And what you said reminded me of when I was a "book mom" for my daughter's class. One of the mothers complained to me that the books were too fun and light and there wasn't enough serious reading choices for her son. She was very disdainful of her son's choices for books and declared she was not going to buy him "that crap". (By the way it was third grade) I felt sorry for her son and wondered if he ever got to read for pleasure and fun. And now so many years later as an adult if he reads for fun or at all. That is why I love books like Harry Potter. Maybe you love the books maybe not but isn't it cool to see so many people turned on to reading. I love to see little kids and goth teenagers and people my age and older lugging around those tomes when they come out. Anywhoo just my two cents.
P.S. My daughter is in college working toward an English degree and then a Master's in you guessed it Library Science!

Robin said...

Sorry for above- I meant to sign my name!

Garianne said...

I guess that's what I don't get about most people. Reading is supposed to be enjoyable! It doesn't matter if the book is "serious literature" or "crap" - if you've enjoyed the experience, the book has done it's "job".

I always thought of reading as a new adventure that I'd be going on - I'd be in a different country or a different time in history or the future, experiencing a different kind of life (as a cook, P.I., writer,or a badass vamp killer....). Each time being transported outside of myself and experiencing new ideas or even finding a new piece of myself I never knew existed.

Reading, to me, shouldn't be a chore, something to be checked off at the end of the day. It should be savored, it should connect with something inside you even if that connection is only through laughter. What a pity that so many people are missing out on the joy that reading can bring into their lives.


Kristie (J) said...

I find this whole Oprah thing kind of interesting. I'm not an Oprah fan, I've probably only seen maybe 3 or 4 shows the entire time she's been on but like you I do admire her tremendously. But I think many of her fans go way go gaga over her. I've never even been tempted to read any of her book club books so One Million Pieces is a book I have never wanted to read. But I found it very interesting as well when I heard yesterday she ripped the author to shreds over falsifying many of his stories when I heard her call into the Larry King show defending him just the previous week.
I think too many people are sucked into the whole celebrity thing. My husband likes to watch some of the entertainment shows, but lately I've been putting my foot down and say I'd rather watch something else. Why waste that time watching a bunch of flawed people who get so much wierd attention for doing nothing really.

Walt said...

What really cheeses me, is not just James Frey, who put out not just this one bald faced lie, but a second that apparently tells the tale of his jail time - which he now admits was pretty much non-existant... not Oprah, who was duped by the author, duped by the book, duped by her own producers and duped by her pride... but Nan Talese, who came on the Oprah show knowing full well that the only way to defend a book full of lies is to continue to lie.
is an article that addresses some of my complaints -- The publisher KNEW the book couldn't have been honest, and simply dodged the question when Oprah confronted her. The implication might be that the publisher was just as duped as Oprah. The reality may very well be that the publisher acted in collusion with the author, although few would make that declaration outloud.

jmc said...

I blogged about my glee over the Frey incident a week or two ago, before Oprah admitted to feeling duped. I vaguely remember Oprah on the Baltimore news way back when, and I do admire her for all she has achieved...but I don't need her (or anyone else) to tell me which books to read, thankyouverymuch. Had enough of that in high school and college. Seriously, how many kids today think that drama is the dumbest class in the world, because their initial exposure to it is the hideous play, "Our Town," which was mandatory reading in every AmLit class I ever took.

Another irrelevant aside: everytime I see the Million Little Pieces book, I don't have the urge to buy it or read it, but I do have the urge to eat an ice cream cone with jimmies.

Karen Scott said...

Oprah's still the greatest, and I still think her book club idea is still a good one. I'd probably never read a single book that was on her list, but that's because I'm hardly ever drawn to popular authors anyway.

If a person who normally doesn't read, does so just because Oprah said so, I don't think she should be sneered at because of it.

I don't even see why the whole Frey thing should reflect badly on Oprah, the whole book was a lie, but it doesn't make the telling of those lies less moving.

Personally, I couldn't give a flying rats arse, there are worse crimes than his, committed every day. He was just an opportunist, who got lucky. Shame he got caught really.

Lynn M said...

I admire what Oprah is trying to do. She's trying to use her clout - deserved or not - to influence people to do something that is good for them. Reading books that make you think or make you look at people and the world from a new point of view can be a very good thing.

But I have to wonder if she has the power to convert nonreaders to readers because of the very think Wendy mentions. Oprah does not pick books that are "easy" or even necessarily fun to read. If I were a nonreader and picked up one of her bookclub books, chances are I'd remain a non-reader because she chooses books that require work to get through. They are Books That Make You Think, and I don't personally think BTMYT are the kind that get people to love reading. Books that are great stories and a lot of fun are the ones that convert people.

I'm with Wendy in that from an early age, we are forced to read classic literature as part of our becoming well educated. Not that I'd argue that these classics are not worthy, just that they aren't necessarily the right tools to use when trying to convince people that reading is fun. If given a choice between a new Suzanne Brockmann or Jane Eyre, a classic I've been thinking I should read, I'm going for the Brockmann every time.