A new study says the Oprah Book Club doesn’t cause more book sales. To which I respond: who cares? Why are book sales a relevant measurement of our literary culture? In general, I would rather people read one Anna Karenina than read 10 romance novels. Anna Karenina is a singular and monumental literary achievement, with deep insights into character, humanity, faith, and sorrow. Dime-a-dozen romance or mystery or science fiction or whatever-genre novels are, by definition, not.
Which is not to say I have a problem with reading genre-fiction. Genre fiction is great! I read a lot of SF and enjoy it plenty. The point, though, is that when there is an opportunity cost it’s almost always good if people supplement their genre fiction with ‘classics’ of the sort that Oprah promotes. Unless you’re in the business of selling books, I’m not sure why you should care how much generic product is moving off the shelves. It seems far more important that people get genuine value out of what they’re reading. The Oprah Book Club doesn’t guarantee that by any means, but very likely helps for a lot of people. And that’s awesome.
I also don’t like the subtle infantilism that accompanies many of the reports on this subject. For example, from Brad Plumer:
Oprah could argue that she got America reading more difficult and more rewarding titles, if somewhat fewer books overall. Of course, that’s assuming people were actually making their way all the way through “Anna Karenina”…
Or Kevin Drum:
While millions of Oprah fans were pretending to slog their way through Faulkner and Tolstoy, they were too drained to read their usual light fare. So the beach reading genres suffered. And if my cynical view is correct, the net effect was to reduce the total amount of reading among America’s households. We read less crap, but probably didn’t make up for it by actually reading the doorstops endorsed by Oprah. Most of us probably plowed our way through a chapter or two, then slowed down to a page here and there, and finally gave up in exhaustion. But I admit that this is a dim view. Perhaps Garthwaite’s next paper should tackle the question of whether people who bought Oprah’s recommended books actually read them.
I’m sure this is the case with plenty of people. But that’s the nature of taking on projects in all forms. Anna Karenina is not a doorstop; it’s a beautiful book that happens to be quite long. Love in the Time of Cholera, another book cited by Plumer is not even very long. I read it in one or two days and it was every bit as engaging as your standard ‘page-turner.’ We’re not talking about Finnegan’s Wake here. I’m sure many people who otherwise would never have even made the attempt discovered that these are not impenetrable literary texts, and had a wonderful reading experience.