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An Unfair Critique of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club

While Oprah’s Book Club boosted sales of its chosen books and got readers to try books they otherwise might not have known about, the club didn’t entice non-readers to become readers, or so says a critique of the Oprah effect on TheAtlantic.com by critic Sarah Fay.

This new scrutiny of Oprah’s club comes just weeks after she announced a new club, this one called Oprah Book Club 2.0, which promises to be a lot more interactive and reflective of the new technology that is transforming the literary landscape.

Fay’s analysis of Oprah’s club and her approach to choosing books says that what she was doing was merely “endorsements,” which helped a particular book increase its sales but didn’t have any effect on the growth of literature or encouraging more reading among the populace. While Oprah should be flattered that someone would have such a grand expectation of her powers of persuasion, it seems a bit ridiculous to me to expect that a book club—even one led by one of the most powerful women in the world—is going to lead a non-reader to a Barnes & Noble or Amazon and get him to open his wallet for a book. That just doesn’t seem consistent with human nature; it doesn’t jibe with the reason that people are non-readers in the first place.

If you want to critique Oprah’s club, perhaps you might say she didn’t choose enough books beyond the mainstream white fiction and nonfiction world where most of the publishing industry spends its time these days. You could say that she missed a huge opportunity to show white readers, white book editors, white publishers that there is some incredible talent in the non-white writing communities and their lives will be made so much better for discovering that. This would have the effect of encouraging them to publish more books by non-white writers and that might then lead to more people of color becoming readers because they are being made aware of more fascinating books out there that speak to their experiences. Oprah did pick a handful of books by African-American and Latino writers, but they tended to be the obvious celebrated superstar writers like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou or celebrities like Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby—in other words, writers that would already get a great deal of attention.

But criticizing Oprah because she has been unable to take a person who has never had the joy of discovering the magic of books and expecting them to become instant readers because some lady on television is holding up a book is way over the top. I think turning a non-reader into a reader as an adult is waaaay too late, decades after that dye has been cast. For the most part, discovering books happens fairly early in life, before stress and money pressures and bills and lack of sleep and kids and time constraints come along and make it virtually impossible for you to suddenly one day carve hours out of every week to sit quietly with a book. That just ain’t gonna happen.

So lets just accept Oprah’s club for what it is—a great advertisement for the book industry—and not expect the woman to conjure some superpowers that no mere mortal will ever possess.

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