The publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash once described the true function of the Oprah Book Club in this way: “Books help Oprah more than Oprah helps books.” When Oprah got someone to read a book with her, she did so in order to capture “mind share during the other 23 hours of the day” when that member of her audience was not watching her show (Spavlik 2011). The point of reading Toni Morrison or William Faulkner with Oprah was not to appreciate Toni Morrison or William Faulkner. The point was to appreciate Oprah. Nash called this the “Oprah Effect.”
This description makes the Oprah Book Club sound like a diabolical scheme, devised in some dystopian near future, meant to hack our brains. And it may well have been just that. But Nash did not mean to condemn but to praise Oprah’s methods of mental colonization. He hoped that publishers might learn from Oprah, emulate her, better capture the attention of audiences, monetize that captured attention in new and exciting ways.
I’d like to turn Nash’s argument around. Whatever we think of the so-called Oprah Effect, Oprah’s Book Club was never only just a form of audience management. It also served an important purpose for her viewers. Indeed, Oprah’s Book Club served much the same function as ordinary book clubs. That is, it organized attention, formed communities, and visualized specific realizable goals for individual readers. Oprah’s Book Club exposed nothing other than the individual reader’s hunger to participate in collective life.
If there’s something nefarious about the Oprah Effect, it’s the way that our hunger for collectivity seems to have been hijacked by a corporate agenda. We might prefer our collective reading projects to be something other than forms of celebrity brand management.
Fortunately, there are alternate models.
I was fortunate to help organize one such alternate model during the summer of 2012 for the Los Angeles Review of Books. I had been asked to review William Gaddis’s J R (1975), a massive 700+ page novel that had just been reissued by Dalkey Archive Press. It was a daunting assignment, and I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to read the book over the course of my summer while attending to my other obligations. I suggested to the editors that we not just review the book but organize an online book club, which would read ten pages of Gaddis’s dense novel per day.
Participants could Tweet about the book using the hashtag #OccupyGaddis and LARB would publish occasional blog posts by various authors leading up to a formal review of the book at the end of the summer. #OccupyGaddis was partly modeled on Infinite Summer, which read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) over the summer of 2009. There have been a variety of similar online exercises, group reads of Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), and other big books.
#OccupyGaddis was a tremendous success. It drew far more people than I expected. The group reading took on a life of its own, and spawned an non-LARB-affiliated follow-up called #AutumnalCity, a collective reading of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) conducted by many of the same people who participated in #OccupyGaddis.
All of which has led me to arrive at a few conclusions about public book clubs. First, the so-called decline of serious reading has been overstated. Our reading culture, though under assault, is not declining as quickly as some fear. There are still large communities of readers—and not just university-bound readers—who are excited to read challenging books together, and looking for opportunities to meet like-minded readers.
Second, collective reading need not only be a vehicle for celebrity brand management. Group-reading projects, in fact, express a powerful desire for a cultural commons. This desire may be channeled into various forms of consumer manipulation, but it need not be.
A better use of the desire for a literary commons would be to create durable institutions that would cultivate and spread public cultures of reading. Some communities have already attempted this, trying to get entire cities (“One City One Book”) or universities to read the same book at the same time. The effort to find books appropriate for the whole community has led to controversy in the selection of particular books (which is always also a political choice). But controversy shouldn’t be regarded as a danger to be avoided but a feature of such efforts to forge consensus and mutual understanding. Literary culture is, after all, unavoidably also political culture.
Others dislike the very idea of exercises in mass reading. “I don’t like these mass reading bees,” the literary critic Harold Bloom told the New York Times in 2002. “It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once” (Kirkpatrick 2002). Of course, the problem with Chicken McNuggets isn’t that we eat them all at once. It’s that they’re manufactured by a large, impersonal corporation that doesn’t have much incentive in caring about our health or gustatory wellbeing.
What we need to do is find ways of producing, distributing, and consuming more delicious, nutritious, satisfying literary Chicken McNuggets. This is a central task for any exercise in imagining the future of reading.