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A Dialectic With the Everyday: Communication & Cultural Politics on Oprah Winfrey's Book Club
Unformatted Document Text:  Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club 2 demand for books and reading. And despite Winfrey’s decision in May 2002 to discontinue Oprah’s Book Club as an episodic mainstay of The Oprah Winfrey Show, her selections continue to figure prominently in most national retail bookselling chains, independent bookstores, and so-called “non- book outlets” (e.g., supermarkets, department stores, pharmacies, etc.). Why did Winfrey – not a professional literary critic, but a television talk-show host – emerge as one of the most significant taste-makers in the U.S. book industry? A more compelling way of posing this question would be to ask: how have those who orchestrated and participated in Oprah’s Book Club together negotiated the purpose and value of books and reading? At the heart of this question lies a concern for the specific communicative processes through which books are produced, distributed, exchanged, and consumed. 3 More to the point, Oprah’s Book Club was and continues to be a complexly mediated cultural phenomenon, combining printed books, television programs, letters, emails, and face-to-face conversations, among other media/forms of communication. This essay, then, both insists upon and explores the role of communication with respect to the apparent success and popular appeal of Oprah’s Book Club in the late-1990s and early-twenty-first century. More specifically, I consider how communication about the selections for Oprah’s Book Club affected, on the one hand, how individuals and groups engaged with the texts, and on the other, how Book Club participants contributed both to the production of and struggle over specific economies of cultural value via their conversations about Club selections. To the extent that women between the ages of 18 and 54 make up both the primary audience for The Oprah Winfrey Show and the largest aggregate book reading public in the U.S. (Kinsella, 1997, p. 277; Radway, 1984, p. 41; Gabriel, 1997, p. D1; Dortch, 1998, 12-13), I focus primarily upon women’s conversations about, and modes of engagement with, the selections for Oprah’s Book Club. The success of the Book Club, I argue, can be traced in part to the ways in which Winfrey, Oprah Winfrey Show producers, and participants in the Club together articulated the value of books and book reading specifically for women. Their deemphasizing purely aesthetic or traditionally literary considerations, I contend, enabled women to strategize how to use Book Club selections

Authors: Striphas, Theodore.
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Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club 2
demand for books and reading. And despite Winfrey’s decision in May 2002 to discontinue Oprah’s
Book Club as an episodic mainstay of The Oprah Winfrey Show, her selections continue to figure
prominently in most national retail bookselling chains, independent bookstores, and so-called “non-
book outlets” (e.g., supermarkets, department stores, pharmacies, etc.). Why did Winfrey – not a
professional literary critic, but a television talk-show host – emerge as one of the most significant
taste-makers in the U.S. book industry?
A more compelling way of posing this question would be to ask: how have those who
orchestrated and participated in Oprah’s Book Club together negotiated the purpose and value of
books and reading? At the heart of this question lies a concern for the specific communicative
processes through which books are produced, distributed, exchanged, and consumed.
3
More to the
point, Oprah’s Book Club was and continues to be a complexly mediated cultural phenomenon,
combining printed books, television programs, letters, emails, and face-to-face conversations, among
other media/forms of communication. This essay, then, both insists upon and explores the role of
communication with respect to the apparent success and popular appeal of Oprah’s Book Club in the
late-1990s and early-twenty-first century. More specifically, I consider how communication about the
selections for Oprah’s Book Club affected, on the one hand, how individuals and groups engaged with
the texts, and on the other, how Book Club participants contributed both to the production of and
struggle over specific economies of cultural value via their conversations about Club selections.
To the extent that women between the ages of 18 and 54 make up both the primary audience
for The Oprah Winfrey Show and the largest aggregate book reading public in the U.S. (Kinsella,
1997, p. 277; Radway, 1984, p. 41; Gabriel, 1997, p. D1; Dortch, 1998, 12-13), I focus primarily upon
women’s conversations about, and modes of engagement with, the selections for Oprah’s Book Club.
The success of the Book Club, I argue, can be traced in part to the ways in which Winfrey, Oprah
Winfrey Show producers, and participants in the Club together articulated the value of books and book
reading specifically for women. Their deemphasizing purely aesthetic or traditionally literary
considerations, I contend, enabled women to strategize how to use Book Club selections


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