Winfrey is great at getting people to buy books, but lousy at showing her audience how to read.
Earlier this month, Cheryl Strayed's Wild became the first book chosen for Oprah's Book Club 2.0, a techie-revamp of the old Oprah's Book Club. Strayed's memoir, about her experience hiking the Pacific Crest trail when she was 26, four years after her mother's death from lung cancer, will undoubtedly incur the same sales figures and publicity hype as other Oprah's Book Club choices. But for writers and readers other than Strayed herself, this is not necessarily a good thing—not because Winfrey chooses "schmaltzy" books, as Jonathan Franzen claimed, or because The Oprah Winfrey Show isn't on the air anymore. Rather, Winfrey is resuscitating her book club at a time when it's clear that book clubs and the publicity—even mega-publicity—that caters to them don't actually buoy literature or reading in the public at large.
Despite its ability to make an eye-popping success out of a work of fiction or creative nonfiction (or a mix of the two, like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces), Oprah's Book Club, which ran from 1996 to Oprah's final season last year, didn't actually prompt the American public to read more. According to a paper published in March by Craig Garthwaite of the Kellogg School of Management, Oprah's Book Club took its selections to the top of various bestseller lists but did not to alter Americans' reading habits overall. Garthwaite discovered that Oprah's Book Club swayed existing readers to try a new genre (known as "combative advertising) but it didn't increase total book sales by attracting new readers (known as "constructive advertising"). The same was true of the Today Show's book club and other book clubs, albeit on a smaller scale. Using data from Nielsen's BookScan panel, which represents three-quarters of all book sales, Garthwaite discovered that although Oprah's Book Club generated an increase in sales of a title by as much as 6,500 percent in the first week this boon would gradually diminish. Other titles published by an Oprah's-Book-Club author usually increased in sales as well, often for a period of several months. This "spillover effect" occurred in titles chosen for Today's book club as well. Regardless of the effect celebrity book clubs have on a particularly author, though, the overall book market did not expand. "In the publishing sector," Garthwaite writes, "endorsements are found to be a business-stealing form of advertising that raises title level sales without increasing the market sales."
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But the belief that celebrity endorsements and book clubs promote reading, or at least encourage book consumption, is widely held. Publishers send electronic newsletters, email alerts, and notices through Twitter, hoping to get the attention of book club readers. They create databases of book club preferences, track online book groups, and post "reading group recommendations" and guides. Literary magazines offer book clubs via Twitter, as do so-called literary collectives, including The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and many, many more. Even the National Endowment for the Arts' "The Big Read" campaign was established under the assumption that city- and nation-wide book clubs were the way to increase literacy. Yet according to Garthwaite there's even less evidence to suggest that the NEA has done much to create new readers.
Why are celebrity book clubs and civic read-alongs good at driving sales but bad at promoting reading? Perhaps because they don't do a good job of showing their members how to read. Other studies show that although Oprah's Book Club makes readers aware of titles and authors they might not otherwise have heard of, it offers little opportunity to actually read and engage. Celebrity-endorsed book clubs don't actually teach people to make time for and privilege reading within a culture that seems to value speed, visual stimulation, and activity. They endorse "books" more than they do actual reading.
OBC 2.0 seems to be trying to fix that problem. According to Winfrey herself, the book club's reboot is more interactive. Readers can watch Webisodes in which Strayed and Oprah "enjoy nature," read passages from the book, and enact a Q&A sessions reminiscent of Strayed's other publicity interviews, including the one she did as part of The Rumpus book club in March. Readers can join the conversation on Twitter to get what Winfrey calls "aha! moments." And look at images of the Pacific Crest Trail. And get a special e-book edition that includes Oprah's and other readers' favorite passages. And log in via Facebook. And form their own book clubs on GroupMe. But all of this is still endorsement. None these new features teaches people to be discriminating readers, perspicacious thinkers, or responsible critics. They revolve around championing a particular book of Winfrey's choosing.
Like many of Winfrey's choices, Wild is an exceptional reading experience—for the first hundred pages or so. It flags in the middle and tires by the end and is probably not going to become a classic. Yet the first half is an earnest, well-constructed story narrated with profound jolts of honesty and just enough drug addiction and promiscuous sex to make it seem "alternative." And it's a book worth talking about, which Winfrey could encourage by posting discussions among authors and critics, who heartily disagree with each other. When she tried a version of this during the second incarnation of her book club, which focused on the classics, it had the effect of championing (and selling) a particular book. This time, Winfrey could do it simply to give viewers a sense for what a lively book discussion might sound like. She could also do it to move OBC 2.0 beyond the role of a celebrity endorser and into a position where it helps to create a relationship between readers and the literature they may or may not be reading.
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