Oprah Learns Her Lesson
Is this it? The end of the Oprah Book Club as we know it?
It's Thursday, April 4, at approximately 3:45 pm. In less than twenty-four hours, virtually everyone in America will have received word of Oprah Winfrey's abrupt decision to cancel her televised book club, but now, as member
number 251 in a select studio audience of about 300, I find myself privy to this news before it has broken over the general populace. It is with no small sense of irony that I find myself here at this unforeseeably historic taping. For one thing, I don't even own a TV and have had little direct exposure to The Oprah Winfrey Show up until this moment. For another, I'm here not because I'm a fan but because I'm hurrying to finish my lengthy English thesis on the impact of the Oprah Book Club on American literary culture. In fact, my very arrival here at Harpo Studios played out something like a game of six degrees of separation, starting during a thesis-writing seminar last fall when a friend and fellow student mentioned that her mother's cousin's friend knew Oprah's makeup artist, and would I like help getting tickets.
Now--countless e-mails, multiple phone calls and several months later--I have come to Chicago's West Loop from Washington this very morning expecting to receive a typical and formulaic book-club-segment experience. I plan to take a few notes, write a nice, anecdotal first-person account of the whole thing upon my return home and be done with it. Still, along with every other polite, neatly dressed guest present, I gasp with pure, unstaged shock when, immediately after returning from a commercial break, Winfrey stands up and declares, "I just want to say that this is the end of the book club as we know it."
I sit stunned in my seat listening to the rest of her official statement that will air during her regularly scheduled program on Friday, the statement in which she explains before the cameras that "the truth is, it has just become harder and harder for me to find books on a monthly basis that I am really passionate about." I hear from Winfrey--as will anyone else who watches the show, listens to the soundbites or reads the papers--that "I have to read a lot of books to get to something that I really passionately love, so I don't know when the next book will be. It might be next fall or it could be next year. But I have saved one of the best for last. It's one of my all-time favorites, and we'll be discussing this selection as usual in about a month. So my final selection is Sula. Sula, by my favorite author, Toni Morrison." Unlike most other people who will hear this quote bandied about the press for weeks to come, from my position, dead-center in the third row, I have the advantage of hearing those parts of Winfrey's explanation that will not make the TV edit.
I hear her say during one of the final commercial breaks that six years' worth of book club has been long enough for her, that having to read so many contemporary novels with an eye toward picking one for the show is just too much pressure in conjunction with everything else she has to do, and that she wants to take time now to return to the classics. I hear her say that she spent the previous weekend rereading The Great Gatsby, a title to which the audience responds appreciatively with knowing oohs, ahhs and nods.
Back on the air again at a few minutes before 4 o'clock, an assortment of staffers pass out copies, both hardcover and paperback, of the final selection. Winfrey reminds all of us in the audience and, of course, everyone watching at home, "After you read it, write me a nice letter. A great Toni Morrison-worthy letter, OK, because in the end she's going to see your letters too," before laughing, thanking us and plunging into the well-mannered crowd herself to help with the distribution of books. The cameras are rolling as I receive my copy of Sula straight from Winfrey's hand; I could reach up and touch the sleeve of her fuzzy, pale blue sweater or the crease of her tailored gray trousers were I so inclined. By slightly after 4 , the show is over. The books have all been handed out, but Winfrey sticks around, as is her habit, to chat with the audience after hours. It is during this unaired window of time that Winfrey's fans have the opportunity to tell their heroine what's on their minds. It is during this time, too, that I witness the saddest part of my in-studio experience, sadder even than Winfrey's initial announcement, sadder because it is heartfelt and wholly unorchestrated.
Rising before posing her question, as we were instructed to do at the beginning of the taping, a well-spoken middle-aged woman in a periwinkle blue shirt addresses Winfrey. I do not catch her name because she is speaking quickly and earnestly, and I couldn't record it anyway because writing materials are not allowed. I do catch that she is a former English teacher, a current mother and homemaker, and a longtime fan of the Oprah Book Club. As such, she thanks Winfrey for having done so much for reading and literature. Then, standing unselfconsciously in front of us all, she pleads with Winfrey not to stop now. Recalling Winfrey's rereading of The Great Gatsby and desire to return to the works of dead authors, she wonders if it might be possible to continue to include literature in the show's format by, say, hosting a themed dinner, throwing a Roaring Twenties party or inviting a Fitzgerald professor to say a few words about the works of F. Scott. There's something strange and desperate and true in her plea, and I want so badly for Winfrey to assent. Instead, Winfrey explains that she just wants to be a "normal reader" for a while, and that although she and her staff certainly considered such alternatives, the likelihood that any of them could ever take place is slim. She does not want, she says laughing, to have to read and select classic novels on the basis of their potential for an accompanying dinner. By a quarter after 4, the discussion turns from the announcement entirely. At approximately 4:30, Winfrey announces that she must take her leave. Without another word about the cancellation of the club, she's gone.