Oprah reads and so should you
The photograph that accompanied a major 1997 magazine profile of Oprah Winfrey posed America’s most influential bookseller in a majestic prep-school library. She’s seated in a caramel-colored leather club chair, elegant in a long crimson dress. Two lustrously furry dogs lounge obediently at hand. Oprah props a tome in her lap, a fine volume with a spine stamped in gold. It’s an inviting, classical portrait, one that fairly sings out, “Come! Be enriched by reading!”
It’s also like no pose known on earth, not to the thousands of reading groups that have taken on new cultural cachet—and marketplace buying power—since Winfrey began Oprah’s Book Club in 1996. For the rest of us, jeans, sweatpants, or wilted end-of-the-workday wardrobes are more in vogue. Participants sprawl on living room floors. And moderate-budget portable paperbacks are the preferred format.
There is one way, though, in which book-club reality is as high-toned as Oprah’s glamour shot: Unusually good books are being chosen—even without celebrity endorsement—and promoted onto the best-seller list by reader-to-reader word of mouth, much of it within book groups that have historically gone for substance over a V.C. Andrews byline. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (HarperPerennial, $13), for instance, a densely constructed family drama set in India, requires concentration to enjoy Roy’s free-ranging poetic voice; this week, with no TV-star backing, it’s at No. 4 on the Publishers Weekly chart. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells (HarperPerennial, $13.50), a springy, good ‘ol Louisiana girls romp with a Fried Green Tomatoes feel, bounced to the top of the charts seemingly out of nowhere, propelled entirely by grassroots endorsement. So popular is Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun (Broadway, $13), a sensuous Italian travelogue from a San Francisco poet (more M.F.K. Fisher piquant than Peter Mayle droll), that the nonfiction account is making its way into book clubs that generally limit their selections to fiction.
Naturally, all this buying power is not lost on publishers, many of whom now target selected paperback titles as club fodder and bind reading guides between the covers. Ballantine is developing videos of authors discussing their work (for gatherings of readers who apparently can’t get enough of the romance of writers sitting at their computer keyboard, procrastinating). Vintage—particularly adept at the game—publishes free reading-group guides, available in bookstores, and posts club-oriented news and information on its website. Bookstores themselves are producing support materials and serving as matchmakers: For any straggler looking to join the party, places like Borders will assemble groups of like-minded strangers, run discussions, and provide folding chairs.
And for the truly clueless, a handful of new paperback titles describe how to start, run, and feed a local-chapter literary salon: In The Reading Group Handbook (Hyperion, $11.95), for example, Rachel W. Jacobsohn (president of the heretofore little known Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders) explains that ”food at meetings is a worthy addition.” Jacobsohn heartily endorses popcorn, cheese, crackers, and licorice—but not, I would hope, while reading Under the Tuscan Sun.