By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
All in all, I'd rather have Oprah than, say, Howard Stern or Jerry Springer gush and play tastemaker. Her Book Club may not advance the cause of literary analysis, but it may do something greater in advancing her conviction that people ought to read more. Oprah has never been brazenly liberal, but neither has she been afraid to be moral, to let her social conscience show. She refused to have Bob Dole or Dennis Rodman (after the publication of his instantly infamous As Bad as I Wanna Be) as a guest. And there's a reason why Starbucks Coffee, eager to be a good corporate citizen, now sells Book Club picks in stores and donates the net proceeds to literacy programs. "With Oprah, there's a purity of intention there," says Starbucks marketing director John Williams. "Her titles reflect a real appreciation for great literary work. It was important for her to hear what our commitment would be."
Some say that Oprah's Book Club doesn't do enough to promote black authors, which someone as powerful as she should feel charged to do. Yet she has showcased a good number of them - Morrison, Ernest J. Gaines, Angelou, Bill Cosby - and claims them as her touchstones. (She has said that Morrison is her heroine, and that Angelou saved her life.) Those who still question her soul-sister credentials might consider that her television and film projects have been taken largely from black literature, from Gloria Naylor to Walter Mosley to Harlem Renaissance survivor Dorothy West. "Whatever else we think of her, she's affiliated with projects that are related to black literature, and that's an important pattern," says Richard Yarborough, English professor and acting director of UCLA's Center for African American Studies. "Oprah's doing what we always wish empowered people, especially empowered black people, would do more of."
James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books in Baldwin Hills, says that the boost Oprah has provided to sales more than qualifies as social responsibility. "We sold 27 copies of Paradise the first weekend it was out, then 70 the weekend after Oprah made it a Book Club pick," says Fugate, who carries all of Oprah's picks in his store, including those by nonblack authors. "Since Oprah, we've sold over 200. She revitalized books."
Race may be a prevailing force in the Oprah Club books, but it is incidental to the stories that move her most - those that chronicle the often tortured search for the geography of one's own soul. As remarkable as the book renaissance is, what's more remarkable is the fact that it is fostered by a black woman who is also an individualist, whose eclectic tastes embrace hardscrabble Southern roots but aren't bound by them, who is as easily transported to a contemporary suburb or life in Nazi Germany as she is to a plantation. Oprah says that the vision fueled by books helped her survive, and I believe her, because I, too, have been saved by books, and by writers wholly unlike myself. The best books renew a belief in self and possibility by realigning the outlook of the reader. With its clamor of voices that sound different to every ear, fiction inspires a kind of wonder that the group activities of television and movies never can. Oprah, by the way, says she never watches TV.
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