Post-publishing edit: There has been some miscommunication here, I think. When I’m talking about “readers” below (and you will know when I get to that point), I’m purposely referring to people who aren’t really readers or who don’t have any genuine interest in becoming good readers, not people who are new to reading and have genuine passion for it. I’m talking about people who think they are reading experts because they read the OBC selections, and worse, act like they are experts because they read the OBC selections. I am talking about a very specific subgroup of people. Not all people. That is all.
There are few things in this world I truly, truly loathe. I loathe willful ignorance. I loathe deceit. I loathe hipsters. And I loathe pretentious soccer moms who think they’re cool and/or smart because they read Oprah’s Book Club Selections.
I’m one of the few people out there who doesn’t think that everybody should read for entertainment. Sure, I think it’s important that everyone can read, and that everyone can read critically, but I in no way advocate pleasure reading to people who I think would run the risk of ruining what is my favorite pastime.
What do I mean, ruining reading? Here are just a few gems from the philistines at Amazon.com in the reviews of one of my all-time favorite novels, Love in the Time of Cholera:
“I encourage anyone that has the desire to read this book to spend that time instead cleaning the grout in your shower with a qtip. I promise you, it will be much more rewarding.”
“At the end, I wish I died of cholera”
“What a horrible disappointment. This book shows “love” in all its profane forms: seduction and molestation of a minor, adolescent and unrequited lust, fornication during a time of mourning, adultery, a rape that ‘enraptured’ the victim, promiscuity without the reality of STDs and unplanned pregnancies, along with “love” resulting in suicide and homicide. I hope the movie is vastly different from the book.”
“Florentino decides to “save himself” for her… by having a lifetime of affairs? Way to ‘save yourself’, you psycho, commitment-phobe, stalker, predator, child-molester, rapist!!!!”
“By far the most overrated book I have ever read and really good indicator of where our society is heading.”
“You are such a child – “magical realism” – that doesn’t even make sense!!! The way you keep using it and using it – you must love the kiss the dicky sentence – huh – it’s just so magically realistic the way a young girl is molested by an old man – the way he says, put her clothes on the bear – so magical! Thank you one star reviewers – these people who love rapists and child molesters are SICK, but hey, at least they love their magical realism…..It’s just so magical and realistic at the very same time – it’s magical! And realistic! Magical! Realistic! Magical. Realistic. See, if I write it enough it will make me see how this sick book deserves 5 stars…magical…realistic…magical…realistc…… [sic]
“My favorite character? The parrot!” (This from someone who seems to think he is Conan O’Brien.)
If I were Gabriel García-Márquez reading these reviews, I would be crushed. I’d have to go bury my Nobel Prize for Literature in the backyard out of shame.
But seriously–the man won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Whether or not one finds him to one’s liking, he won a goddamn award, arguably the most prestigious award, for writing. In light of this, you might think that, upon finishing one of his works, one might kick back for a spell and contemplate the language, the meaning, the journey into another culture, before running to Amazon and insinuating that Márquez is a closet pedophile. And you would be wrong. Dead fucking wrong.
I don’t want reading to be taken over by the ignorant. [Post-publishing edit: when I say "ignorant" I mean "willfully ignorant"--people who want to skip to being an uber-expert without taking the time to learn about things like . . . you know, how literature works.] This isn’t to say that everybody who follows the OBC list is ignorant, but I suspect that
most many of the people who started reading just ‘cos Oprah said to read and afterwards run to Amazon to complain about canonical works of literature are often the same people who watch television news, believing every single word that comes out of the pundits’ mouths because the pundits are on TV, and then deem themselves experts on economics or constitutional law because they’ve been bolstered by the idea that opinions are a substitute for knowledge. Oprah’s audience, on the whole, is so not advanced enough for Love in the Time of Cholera; you don’t get an overwhelmingly literate and thoughtful audience by doing makeover shows and Springer-esque interventions. (See the 25 most-watched episodes of Oprah here.)
And Oprah should have known better, dammit. Not only do you have these people out there professing crap opinions of our favorite books, but because they’re also “readers” now, they’re steadily trying to insert themselves into our cozy, comfy reading lifestyle. Which would be fine, but . . . . well, it’s like inviting your country cousins to the opera and having to explain in loud whispers why this op’ry don’t have banjos. (And yes, I have country cousins, dozens of them–I’m from Kentucky. And that is exactly what they would ask.) How many times can you gently turn down an asinine reading recommendation without hurting someone’s feelings? How long can you smile wanly through a rant about why they don’t understand how come Mark Twain had to use so much foul language in his books, or why Nabokov had to write so much filthy smut, or why Charles Dickens couldn’t just make his books a little more readable like that Grisham fellow? And when is Godot gonna show up, and who the hell is Godot any-damn-way? This book sucks!
They’re readers now, you see. Just like you and me, who have been reading since before they stopped gnawing on the edges of their books. We who were at the library when they were off drinking canned beer and vomiting or peeing on a stick and hoping it said “not pregnant.” We who had graduated from YA books before they had the patience to read any books. Now we are the same. Because of Oprah’s Book Club, the great equalizer. And because we are now the same, we’re forced to sit and listen to every asinine, ignorant thing they have to say about writers who crafted Serious and Important Work, and we’re forced to pretend that their opinions are equal to ours, despite the fact that we’ve been reading for decades and they wouldn’t read at all if Oprah hadn’t told them to. Because opinions are substitutes for knowledge now, and Oprah unleashed them on our favorite books.
The good news is that the OBC (yeah, you know me–wait, shit, that’s O.P.P.) seems to be winding down recently. I’ll be more than glad if the Oprah crowd keeps reading, as long as they stay away from my babies and don’t try to suggest any books for me to read. I imagine that, without the list updating frequently, selections on par with The Road* and Love/Cholera will probably drop from her book club members’ reading adventures. This is all I want, really–to be able to read without having to share my reading with people who have no affinity for it. In return, I promise to leave your preferred hobbies alone, be they watching sports, cleaning the house, or bondage. You’ll never hear me whine, “But this ball gag is just so uncomfortable!” I promise.
*Just an aside: I found this review of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It doesn’t seem to be written by an OBC member, and I disagree with his opinion of Cormac McCarthy, but his review was full of win. Go read it. You’ll laugh. A lot.
Update: This tweet from our beloved Amy in response to the OBC reaction to Love/Cholera must be shared:
I basically died when I read this.