IN DEFENSE OF OPRAH WINFREY
by Marylaine Block
When Oprah Winfrey announced that she was scaling back her book club because "It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share," our national society of professional posturers and umbrage takers attacked her mercilessly. They accused her of arrogance, and scoffed that with thousands of books coming out every year it was preposterous to say there weren't twelve each year that could meet her standards (which they clearly did not find especially elevated).
To me, the flap gave yet more evidence that many professional pundits see no real need to know what they're talking about before they go on the attack.
First, I would guess the pundits never watched any of her book discussion shows, since they seemed oblivious to how much effort Winfrey put into each book selection. For each book, Winfrey invited readers to send their comments to her web site. She and her production team read those letters, and from them, she chose 3 or 4 readers to meet the author and share the questions, reactions and personal revelations the book inspired in them. Oprah hosted and took part in these discussions and televised them. This is not a chore anyone would undertake lightly.
Secondly, I would guess that they don't understand much about the act of reading itself. Most of you are readers. How many books do YOU read in a month? Of those books, how many do you react to with such passion that you are compelled to share them? And even among these books, how many have such universal appeal that you would recommend them to not just a select few people but to ALL your friends, let alone to a nationwide audience?
In a good month, I might read as many as twenty books, a luxury I attribute to the fact that I mostly don't have to leave my house to go to work and the fact that my preferred method for approaching any writing assignment is stalling until the last minute. For years I have kept a reading diary of those books, which was the basis for the "Books Too Good To Put Down" annotated reading lists on my BookBytes web site http://marylaine.com/bookbyte/index.html.
Last year, I jotted notes on some 200 books in my reading diary. From these, I added just 20 books to my annotated reading lists. Half of these were non-fiction, which I always recommend only to people with specialized interests. That left 10 works of fiction. But I only recommend Terry Pratchett to people with a taste for whimsy and humor; I only recommend Robert Parker's Spenser mysteries to those who can handle both erudite references and lots of violence. Of those 10 works of fiction, only perhaps 5 were works I thought would appeal to a wide variety of readers.
I consider it downright amazing that Winfrey was able to find a title a month for as long as she did. Critics are welcome to quarrel with her selections, to be sure, but if you read what people said about those books on her web site, it's clear that Winfrey has an instinct for books that evoke profound emotional response -- an instinct that seems to have declined within the increasingly profit-and-formula-driven publishing industry. If she ever chose to give up her day job, some publisher should jump at the chance to give her her own publishing imprint, where she could do nearly as much to benefit the industry as she has with her book club.
What the pundits utterly failed to understand is that the quiet habit of reading books itself is in decline, endangered by our restless, noisy, click-through, media-soaked environment. And with the decline of books comes a decline in the habits of mind inculcated by reading: patience, contemplation, logic, linear thought, and the ability to follow complex arguments, analyze the evidence, and arrive at a reasoned opinion on the truthfulness of the work. In short, all the habits of mind required to appreciate and understand good punditry in action.
Oops. Now I get it. No wonder they don't want Winfrey encouraging people to read.
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What runs Discworld is deeper than mere magic and more powerful than pallid science. It is narrative imperative, the power of story. It plays a role similar to that substance known as phlogiston, once believed to that principle or substance within inflammable things that enabled them to burn. In the Discworld universe, then, there is narrativium. It is part of the spin of every atom, the drift of every cloud. It is what causes them to be what they are and continue to exist and take part in the ongoing story of the world.
. . .
Narrativium is powerful stuff. We have always had a drive to paint stories onto the universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in among them giant bulls, dragons and local heroes.
This human trait doesn't affect what the rules say -- not much, anyway -- but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories.
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. The Science of Discworld. Ebury Press, 2000.
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