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."

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.

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Reeves Wiedeman does story research for The New Yorker.

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