Thursday, December 16, 2010

What the Dickens, Oprah?

Let me preface this post by saying, I’m not much of an Oprah fan.

But, aside from that, I do pay attention to her “book club.” I don’t do this because I think she is an amazing literary mind who offers intelligent insight and discussion in regard to well written literature, I do this because, she does do a good job of introducing new or unknown contemporary authors into the literary world. And, she also helps to bring into the mainstream many pieces of classic literature. Book stores have noted that every time Oprah adds a book to her list, the sales for that book explode, even for books that have been around for a hundred years or more. I mean, you can’t argue with the fact that the woman has influence. People are going to read what she says to read just because she said.

Now, herein lies the problem. This is why I personally have such mixed feelings toward Oprah’s “book club.” On one hand, one positive aspect that cannot be ignored is the fact that PEOPLE ARE READING! This is never a bad thing. Reading as a habit or a means of pleasure is something that is quickly disappearing in the general public. Aside from those of us who inhale every printed word just for the fun of it, most people just don’t read for fun. So, anything that gets people to read is good, especially if they are reading the classic pieces that are generally ignored by the mainstream presently. It is well known that Oprah has encouraged the reading of such works as Anna Karenina, As I Lay Dying, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. So, yes, I agree, the reading of classic and quality literature is a good thing, through whatever means.

However, one the other hand, some of these texts are pretty difficult and complex if you haven’t studied or read Dickens before. Now, I don’t say this to sound snooty, arrogant, stuck up, or whatever term you may choose to use, I say this because it is true.

And now, the newest addition to Oprah’s “book club” is Dickens. She has decided to read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. My first thought was “Great, I love Dickens. This might be a good time for me to go back and reread these. It’s been a while. I’m glad Oprah mentioned these.” However, the more I thought about this, the more it didn’t sit well with me. I really began to think about reading this as a suggestion from Oprah, just jumping into it with no knowledge or expectations. I’ve taken this approach with some of her suggestions before and was met with no major problems. But, I kept thinking about reading Dickens on my own for the first time. If I would have approached Dickens on my own, without any help, I don’t think I would have made it. Being an English major, I was lucky enough to be guided through my first experience with Great Expectations and Bleak House. And let’s face it, Dickens is Dickens! To fully grasp the narrative that he presents, the reader needs to have a basic working knowledge of the London that Dickens was writing about. The reader needs to understand the social strata of the time, the reader needs to be aware of certain figures of speech and euphemisms, and the reader needs to know the basic geography of the city. Yes, you can read Dickens without this knowledge and get the basic gist of the story. But, to be completely unaware of these details causes the reader to miss SO much of what makes Dickens great. And really people, do you think Oprah is going to explain all of this to you so that you might better enjoy the novel. No. She said “I’ve always wanted to read Dickens over the Holidays.” She also told her audience, “This makes great reading while you’re sipping hot chocolate.” Really Oprah? How do you know that? If that’s the case, then why not choose A Christmas Carol or some of Dickens’ other Christmas writing. Why chose Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities? Does this really strike you as light, cheerful, holiday reading? Because, if so, you’re in for a surprise.

So, if you’re just an everyday reader and you’re willing to do the work that goes along with reading Dickens, GREAT! I’m excited! That makes me happy! I wish there were more readers like that in the world. Do your homework, gather the background knowledge, this is what adds to the richness of Dickens’ world. If you can read these books with attention to detail and appreciation of language, you will feel so accomplished when you finish. That’s one reason I love Dickens’ so much. I feel like reading his writing is work sometimes, but the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment that comes with reading him is unlike anything else.

So, tell me, how do you feel about Oprah and her reading list, or her ideas about literature?

How do you feel about Dickens?

I really want to know!


  1. Hm.. I have mixed feelings on this post. Yes, I was guided through Dickens some, BUT I also read it in high school. I don't know, I think she is pretty spot on sticking it on her reading list!

    Interesting points you are making though.


  2. You have a good point about reading Dickens but at the same time I think a lot of people read at least one of his books in high school anyway. I've also noticed that many times I'll pick out a book on my own only to find out it's on her list; not sure how I feel about that. At least she, generally, has good taste.

  3. Interesting points, but I can't say that I agree. I haven't taken an English class since my freshman year of college (5 years ago), but I still read Dickens and understand his writing. Maybe I wouldn't get as involved in the story as say, someone like you, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it. I love that Oprah encourages people to read, especially classics. Saying that people may not understand the book because they didn't study English is like me saying that the government shouldn't be encouraging people to engage in politics because they weren't political science majors in college like I was. I just don't see your logic behing this one...sorry.

  4. I'm sorry if that's how this post comes across, because, really, that's not how it was intended. As I said, anything that gets people reading is a good thing! Anything! And I'm not saying that people without the background knowledge can't read and understand Dickens. I even state in my post that without specific knowledge, you can still read the story and enjoy it and get the general gist. The point I'm trying to make is that the external knowledge that can be applied to Dickens helps SO much and adds SO much to the writing. As a reader, I enjoy the writing of Dickens more, I think, because of the background knowledge that I bring to the experience.

    I guess I'm really just trying to encourage readers to take the initiative to do a little bit "extra" when they read a difficult text. Yeah, sometimes it's time consuming, but in the end, its benificial. The same goes with politics, it helps (but isn't necessary) to have a little knowledge about the candidates before casting a vote. Everyone has the right and the capability to read or vote as they choose, but possessing certain knowledge leads to a more well-informed reader or voter, and generally a better experience all around.