Cosmos, Oprah, and Books

My mother has been in a book club for over two years now.  Once a month on Friday evenings they meet in the clubhouse in our development, drink wine, eat food, and possibly talk about a book.  Book clubs were all the rage for a while, partly due to Oprah’s influence.  Books were printed with questions for discussion and publisher’s websites for authors often included book club questions.  This is still the case, but book clubs aren’t in fashion as much now.  I think this is partly because the fad has simply worn off, but perhaps the trend will pick up again with Oprah’s announcement of a new Book Club pick.  Book clubs are a great institution because they boost the popularity of books, increase reading, and allow the discussion of literature to remain lively.

My mother’s book club consists of other mothers in our neighborhood with children of similar ages.  My sister is thirteen so many of my mother’s friends also have children in middle school.  They started out reading books like We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (an Oprah pick) and The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan.  Each week someone would bring wine, an appetizer, and some questions printed out about the book.  They would discuss the book for about half the time and then talk about their husbands and kids for the other half.

As time went on less women would bother finishing the chosen book.  Our close family friend, Darlene, would complain the books were too depressing.  Other mothers would say they just didn’t have time and the book didn’t keep their interest.  Even my mom would occasionally be unable to finish the book if she was too busy with work.  That’s when Darlene started bringing cosmos instead of wine, and the conversation became wholly centered on husbands and kids and, frequently, teacher bashing (much to my mother’s disappointment seeing as she is a teacher).

In book clubs there is usually a schism in the group because certain people like reading Nora Roberts and certain people prefer books that are a little more mentally stimulating.   In our culture there always seems to be a natural divide between people who read for pleasure or entertainment and people who read to challenge themselves. And then there is always a Darlene in the group who prefers to drink and gossip and have a good time.  Book clubs allow for both types of people to come together.  Even when my mother’s book club is reading a book that is literary fiction and doesn’t appeal to everyone, they gather together as a form of entertainment and to enjoy themselves.

Book clubs in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club and in Little Children (which were both also books), seem to do better centering on classic books that people may have read before.  I love the idea of a book club reading one author’s entire work.  It could get boring after a while, but it would probably feel like a great accomplishment.  In a collegiate setting we have the opportunity in literature classes to read a book and have an intelligent discussion with other people about it.  After college, that experience is lost if you aren’t continuing your education.  Book clubs are a wonderful way to have that opportunity.  My mom is a middle school English teacher and she has always loved reading and books.  Her book club allows her to enjoy literature, besides the kind that is read by 12 year olds, and to have a reason to socialize with her friends in a meaningful way.

With the popularity of Oprah’s Book Club, Oprah seems to have become the poster child for book clubs.  The books that Oprah picked in the past were far from your beach read, but somehow the busy women of America were picking up Love in the Time of Cholera, The Sound and the Fury, and The Bluest Eye. When you have the stamp of approval from Oprah, books sell in great numbers.  Publishers loved this.  In 2002, Oprah stopped endorsing so many books saying, “It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I find absolutely compelled to share.”

In September of this year, Oprah announced her 63rd book club selection.  This was the first short story collection she chose, titled Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan.  There is no question that Akpan’s book will sell much more than the 32,000 copies sold since it was released, especially now that Oprah has endorsed it.  I personally wouldn’t consider Oprah an expert on literature, but she is doing something admirable, something that more people should do.  She is compelled by literature, and she feels the need to share with others the books that compel her.  I’m not saying that Oprah’s Book Club isn’t a big money making machine, but she at least has the right idea of what purpose a book club serves.  Reading is a very private thing.  But literature doesn’t have to be academic and solitary.  There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a cosmo when you discuss a book.

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