Friday, February 18, 2011

An Oprah Reading Fantasy (Black History Month - Part 3)

At this point  I suppose no one needs to heap praise upon or call further attention to Oprah Winfrey.

Who is this woman? Just one of the best known people on the planet, that's all.

Yet, as I conclude this series on Black History Month, I would like to point to Oprah as one of the few celebrities who manages to deliver to us a valuable paradox.

Oprah is not a case of "what you see is what you get." Think about it. Here is a person who comes to the us via the borders defined by a box and moves around with complete comfort and ease in that medium, She is so successful in the realm of the glowing rectangle that she has virtually owned daytime TV for decades.

Nevertheless it is Oprah who has been using television to tell us that we, in effect, need to turn off our TVs. She reminds us that we are missing out on something huge if we don't shun the "boob tube" from time to time and make room in our lives to read more books.

A while ago Oprah devoted an entire issue of her magazine to books and authors. One can see: this is someone who takes reading very seriously.


If I keep unwrapping the mystery of Oprah, I find a further paradox. The woman who loves reading so very much that she had constructed a personal library to die for has a very different story lurking in her background. As an African-American, Oprah is a descendant of slaves. One of the strongest prohibitions that slaves lived with was that they were not allowed to learn how to read.

The slave masters understood. Access to books could begin to erode their power structure. Ignorant slaves were the most malleable. Books, by contrast, taught a man or a woman how to think for himself. They delivered identity. Books could become keys and gateways to freedom.

Frederick Douglass
In the famous Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave, the author notes that, " it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country," but Douglass got around this high wall when his "kindly" Mistress taught him the alphabet.

He took those 26 letters and literally ran with them.

Douglass tells how as he went on errands for the master he took a book with him and got the white children in the neighborhood to give him informal lessons in reading. And his eyes were opened...

Douglass was born in 1818. Nearly two hundred years later Oprah Winfrey, born in a world that no longer withholds literacy from anyone, asks all of us to remember what reading can do for us. At the same time, the pressures not to read books increase.

We're busy. We spend hours on the Internet doing casual, superficial reading of emails, Facebook posts, websites, and yes, blogs. And if we finally wish to turn our attention to a full-blown narrative, it's easier and faster to pop a DVD into the Blu-ray player than to crack the cover of a book.

I think Oprah understands what's happening. With her Book Club she has not only performed the role formerly played by influential critics and teachers who singled out works that everyone should read, she has also tried to create a culture of reading. She promotes the idea that one can enjoyably and profitably gather with friends who are reading the same book and discuss it.

Advocating the idea of reading these days is like trying to roll a rock up a steep hill. Will the rock make it to the crest or will it roll down upon us? I honestly don't know. Reading may become more and more a niche activity that goes through frequent bursts of revival (like knitting) and at the same time never reclaims the more thoroughgoing popularity it had, say, at the height of the paperback revolution in the 1950s. That was before television and movies began to siphon away the mass audience.

I suspect that without Oprah things would be worse. Fewer people would be reading and many books she's brought to their attention over the years would be vastly neglected.

I think of the time a few years ago when I was on an airplane and I saw a woman reading a thick trade paperback of my all-time favorite novel.

Anna Karenina.

Who on earth would be reading Count Tolstoy's masterpiece? It's rarely studied even in college. It's too long and perhaps not obtuse enough for lit professors who think wrestling with "difficulty" is the purpose of their discipline.

Then I saw the sticker on the front cover and I understood: A.K. was an Oprah Book Club Selection.

How remarkable are the twists and turns of history. I can imagine Oprah, this descendant of those who were forbidden to read, paying a visit today to the white-washed, stately, suburban home of the great, great, great, great grandchildren of those who owned the slaves. Just after dinner she rings their door bell.

Ding-dong! Very sonorous and impressive! But...

When no one answers, Oprah shyly opens the door and looks around. No wonder no one heard the doorbell. Inside the white-washed, stately, suburban home the parents and four children are:

  • Playing video games
  • Watching TVs and movies on high definition screens.
  • Noodling around at their computers.
  • Texting on their phones

Oprah looks about, shakes her head, and at last speaks.

"What's wrong with all of you? Why aren't you reading?"

And it's true. There are shelves in the house, but on them rest knick knacks and DVDs. Other than some obscure tomes obviously chosen for their decorative cachet, there isn't a book in sight.

The family hears the commotion as Oprah strides through the house, moving from room to room. Each, in turn, looks at her, noting the strong voice in their midst, but their eyes remain vacuous, unfocused.

"Don't you get it?" Oprah shouts. "You've all become slaves!"

In desperation she places a stack of Book Club books on the dining room table where perhaps the family will stumble upon them the next time they sit down to eat their microwave meals. Then she departs and tries the house next door...

The family members in the white-washed, stately, suburban home turn back to their individual screens and diversions. I'm sorry to report that hour after hour the loudest sound in the house is the clanking of chains. If you've ever been around slaves, then you know the harsh truth. You can only free those who actually want to be free. Not even Oprah Winfrey can change that. - V.W.


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