Reading Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom' With Oprah's Book Club


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When Oprah Winfrey announced her latest Book Club selection during a September broadcast of her television show, she held the single "o" in the novel's title for nearly four full seconds. That may not sound like a lot, but try it. She christened the novel (you know the one) "exquisite," "a masterpiece", and "a tour de force." None of the descriptions were fresh—this was a full month after Time magazine's knighting—but they were sufficiently effusive to convince me that, since I planned to read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom anyway, I might as well do so along with Oprah's publishing industry lifeboat.

Oprah's Book Club, I learned, has relatively little to do with The Oprah Winfrey Show. For Freedom, there was the brief announcement, a smattering of teasers in the weeks that followed ("Hope you've been reading!"), and, finally, Monday's episode, during which we can only hope Jonathan Franzen will jump up and down on Oprah's couch. The intervening months require Oprah Book Clubbers in need of reading support to visit Oprah's well-equipped website. It's informative. It's interactive. Its color scheme is fuchsia-based. A printable bookmark can be found—folding and cutting required—with the six-week reading schedule and a space to jot down "Notes & Quotes."

Sporadic features were posted as the weeks wore on: a list of Franzen's favorite books (he prefers Joseph Heller's Something Happened to Catch-22) and another proposing songs that Freedom's rocker, Richard Katz, "might not hate" (the first track is by Iggy Pop, the last by Sonic Youth). There was a handsome character guide in the shape of a tree—a family tree—with several blue warblers—Katz, Lalitha—flitting among the branches. Click on a leaf, like Patty's, and it will provide such illuminating details as "Wife of Walter." The characters were also listed in an A-to-Z guide, beginning with Abigail Emerson—"Sister of Patty"—and ending with Zachary—"Son of one of Richard Katz's clients; high school senior; hipster-in-training." Once you've finished the book, a 20-question reading quiz awaits, recalling, for me, ghastly images of middle school and Scantron sheets. I missed two.

Jill Adams, one of Oprah's producers, has been the Book Club's proprietress since its inception. "I'm an original gangsta," she told me the other day, miraculously equating a book club with a cocaine ring. It's fitting, perhaps: the only picture of Adams on the Book Club Web site shows her shielding the lower half of her face with a copy of Freedom, as if peeking above a security wall not unlike, well, some sort of criminal.

She is, however, exceedingly friendly, and one easily imagines her welcoming friends into her home for a well-catered book club discussion. (She's been in other book clubs before, but now has time only for her boss's.) Adams's primary role in the OBC is moderating the club's central nervous system: its online discussion board. "Is 'handling your own crap' a metaphor for a successful marriage?" Adams asked, in one of her weekly discussion starters. English Lit 501, this is not. "I could do a post and be very academic: 'Here's your essay question, people, now get to work," Adams told me. "But I try to bring a little of myself to it, because If I bring myself and my issues in, it allows readers to look at the book in a new way."

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Reeves Wiedeman does story research for The New Yorker.

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