It took all of two days for a commenter to declare, of the book: "it killing me already." (All comments very sic'd.) Among the hundreds of comments, I counted 34 uses of the words "bored" or "boring"—to the first few chapters, "the part about the birds," the whole thing. One reader questioned Franzen's understanding of motherhood. Another pined for John Grisham and Debbie Macomber. From amverano: "Im glad to see another person thinks blahblahblah!!" Franzen's shots at George W. Bush were, on the whole, not appreciated, though most of Oprah's readers would have happily traded another political rant for one fewer bedroom scene (gypsyx9: "especially the repulsiveness phone sex between Joey and Connie."). Freedom was, in turns, "wordy," "rambling," and the "worst book I have ever read." And yet, the derision for Freedom was matched by its enthusiasts. "Keep going!" Franzen's advocates would exhort to those who said they were off to the public library to donate their unread copy in disgust. Amid all the push and pull, I couldn't help thinking about the back and forth between the groveling reviews (in The Times) and devastating ones (The Atlantic) bouncing between coastal publications. It didn't seem all that different.
Upon entering Oprah's Book Club for the first time, it's easy to presume that one is joining a group for which deep, serious analysis is not encouraged. Among the 68 books Oprah has selected since 1996, when the club began, she has chosen several written by Bill Cosby. An excerpt from Ricky Martin's new autobiography, Me, posted on Oprah's website—but not an official Book Club selection—was "liked" on Facebook by more than three times as many Oprah readers as an excerpt from Freedom. But the rest of the club's list could comfortably fill a college lit syllabus. Since 2003: Steinbeck, Garcia Marquez, McCarthy, Tolstoy, and Faulkner (three times). Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison have been featured, and have appeared on the show.
Reams of scholarly bluster have been expended on each of these authors, though in the OBC, McCarthy's stylistic debt to Melville and Steinbeck's use of synecdoche are never discussed. It's not that the OBC's members aren't up to the task—the online discussion on Freedom diverted into eclectic asides on, at various points, Philip Roth, War and Peace, Carl Jung, and Jean-Paul Sartre—but that Oprah's readers, as a whole, aren't interested in such pursuits. Freedom, like all books Oprah assigns, was prescriptive, and the overarching question that her readers pursued, often in great depth, was: "What can the lives of Franzen's characters tell us about our own?"
For Freedom, each member of Oprah's Book Club was encouraged to maintain an online journal with prompts like "What does freedom mean to you?" For those operating book clubs under less national leadership, the Web site offered 18 discussion questions: "Did Carol and Blake evolve as parents? What sort of life do you predict for their twin daughters?" The query was typical of the others. In Oprah's world, a book is successful in proposing a way of life, or it isn't. Considerable effort was expended discussing whether Walter was a good man, whether Connie and Joey were truly in love, and what exactly love is in the first place. Franzen's seat along the Foster Wallace-Pynchon spectrum never came up. "This is what's especially good about fiction," Adams said. "It's an instruction manual to our lives."
Every episode of Oprah is just such an instruction manual—if, at times, a flawed one—as is every iteration of Oprah's Book Club. The sprightly colors, the navel-gazing questions, and, yes, Oprah's very presence, suggest a lack of sophistication. And, yet, I couldn't shake the feeling as I followed the discussion that people in the book club were getting more out of the book than it first seemed. Reader after reader noted how an event "took them back" to a moment in their own lives, or how much they related to specific characters. One woman wrote: "I really don't like any of them but they sure are changing how I live my life." "It's a book club. Not everybody's gonna like every book," Adams told me, several days after taping had finished for Franzen's appearance. "But when people passionately dislike a book, a lot of times that means there's something that's just too personal for them." She told the story of an audience member who, during the taping of the show's discussion of The Reader several years ago "stood up and gave me the riot act about how horrible the book was." After the discussion with the author, the woman stood up again. "She said, 'Oh my god, this is all about me. I just didn't want to look at my own life.'"
And this is what Oprah has managed in keeping her own book club fully functional for 14 years: to open a space where anonymous strangers read pretty good books and wonder what exactly it all means for them and their spouses and their children and their future and, yes, occasionally whether they would date one of the main characters. A widely praised comment about Freedom, from victoria48, began "As I read this book I see the characters as people going through the stages we all go through." It ended, "This book is giving me a second chance at looking at my own life." Every reader, let alone every writer, should be so lucky.