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This holiday season, I’m thankful for Oprah

December 25, 2009

This Christmas day, I’ve found myself thinking about a different list than Santa’s collection of the world’s naughty and nice: the hundreds of literary works lucky enough to be included in Oprah’s Book Club.

In many ways, I loathe Oprah. Her over-the-top exuberance, continual focus on the newest self-help guru, and touchy-feely moments with disabled guests who have overcome the greatest odds to complete amazing physical feats all cause me to run from anything O related, turning my nose up at her media empire as I flee. She is everywhere; and this, put simply, annoys me. But a gift from my grandmother this Christmas has left me feeling different, at least momentarily, about the influence of this TV icon.

Probably thinking about the next book for her club.


My grandmother, well intentioned though she may be, is known for her tacky, useless, out-of-touch gifts. When I was 16 she sent me a Barney book; the next year, hoping to give something more age-appropriate, I received a Velcro towel which, at the expense of the wearer’s skin, sticks to itself so that one need not worry about scrunching it modestly below the armpits post-shower. My family’s annual Christmas tradition is the now-classic Kardas-Nelson cringe, which appears just as one rips off the wrapping paper of the year’s gift, anticipating yet another horror.

Today began no differently. I sulked slowly towards the tree to pull out a small, neatly wrapped present, and we made the usual jokes about what sort of junk could possibly appear beneath that glittering, puppy-dogs-with-Santa-hats paper. Wincing, I unwrapped the gift and was pleasantly surprised, finding Say You’re One of Them by Nigerian author Uwem Akpan in my hands. The book is supposedly brilliant, and I have considered buying it several times when passing by bookshops in the past months.

My grandmother’s newfound shopping brilliance is directly attributed to Oprah. Gma loves the woman, watches her religiously: what Oprah says goes, and all else is rendered meaningless. A week or two ago, my grandma says, Oprah announced Say… to be the newest member of her club. Knowing that I had visited Africa and all (is it a continent, or a country? she asks), grandma promptly called the local bookstore and was placed on the waiting list for the suddenly back-ordered book. 

And herein lies Oprah’s influence. Within hours of the book appearing on air, all the bookstores in my grandmother’s small, New England town—comprised primarily of young families and retirees—were scrambling to get as many copies as possible before Christmas day to meet a burgeoning readerships’ demands. For all of her faults and obnoxious behaviour, this media mogul has brought previously little known works from around the world into the living rooms and lives of her viewers, many of whom are white, upper-middle-class and suburban, often closed off from the world outside the walls of their two-bedroom homes. Without Oprah, they may know little of the lives of Indian women or the racism and perseverance of deep-South culture, may be hard pressed to turn off their TV and choose to dive into a crisp book instead. Oprah’s list has, in many ways, re-invigorated the culture of reading throughout North America, making it an activity not only for intellectuals or students, but for hockey moms and fishermen dads, and yes, even my sweet old grandmother. More so, Oprah’s list makes reading not an activity of an individual, but a social one instead: you’re not just reading that book on your own, you’re reading it with millions of co-viewers across the country, silently connected by your love of this big, boisterous woman and her brilliant literary suggestions.

Of course, there is the Oprah curse: the idea that once an author’s book makes the famous list, they are no longer a serious writer and instead simply marketable, becoming passé instantaneously. More so, reading one book can never educate about an entire culture or country, and Oprah’s sponsorship of an “African book” or “Asian book” runs the risk of encouraging her viewers to believe that they are now fully aware of “that continent’s problems.” The experiences of these cultures are nicely packaged and beautifully sold by Oprah in between a story about a down-and-out Chicago girl who makes it big in Hollywood and an interview with Michelle Obama: it’s all neat and digestible, fitting in perfectly with our North American lives and leaving room for commercial breaks. Such simplification goes beyond even Oprah’s powers (incredible though they be), as North Americans in general are embarrassingly willing to state that they “know” about a place when in fact they can hardly point it out on a map.

But neglecting whatever criticisms angsty writers may have about whether O’s advertising degrades the true value of their work, and despite the tendencies of her viewers to gloss-over matters at hand, I am thankful for such designations on this Christmas day, not only because of my relief that Grandma has finally hit a good one, but for the impact Oprah has on reading and cultural understanding for this TV-obsessed continent.

My grandmother is sad that Oprah has announced her TV departure date. I can’t say that I’m too distraught about the event myself, except that if her book club goes along to bed with the show, this part of the world may slink even farther towards stupidity and cultural insulation. More personally, I fear for Christmases of tomorrow: who knows what kind of gift I’ll get without her guidance. Barney just may make a comeback.

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