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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 24 Book Club together rearticulated these received categories into a highly sophisticated – and markedly different – economy of cultural value in which proximity and pertinence to everyday life superceded what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) calls the “icy solemnity” of decrepit aesthetic labels (p. 34). The success of Oprah’s Book Club, moreover, may help to temper the oft-repeated (and indeed highly prosaic) charges about declining interest in and commitment to books and book reading, which typically authorize critics to make heady claims about the “dumbing down” of U.S. culture in an era supposedly dominated by electronic media (see, e.g., Postman, 1986; Gitlin, 1997). The sudden, intensive interest in the Book Club and its communicative efforts to bring in non-readers at all levels suggests that an extensive yet largely untapped book reading public existed in the U.S. prior to the Club’s formation, particularly among women; indeed, many more of these nascent publics may exist today. Thus, critics who attribute an apparent disinterest in books and book reading to an intellectual downturn in U.S. culture or to the putatively deleterious effects of electronic media may overlook a far more mundane explanation for these phenomena. The highly sophisticated communicative strategies employed on Oprah’s Book Club throw into relief the global book publishing industry’s general ineffectiveness at communicating the relevance of books and book reading to specific social groups in terms other than primarily aesthetic ones – the popular “. . . for Dummies” series notwithstanding. But make no mistake: Winfrey, her producers, and the members of Oprah’s Book Club were engaged in the work of distinction, despite their persistent refusal to discuss and classify Book Club selections within the framework received aesthetic categories. Their work consisted not just of finding “good books,” however, but more importantly books that fit – an intractable alchemy that has vexed the book industry for a century. That The Oprah Winfrey Show proved a critical vehicle for stimulating interest in books and book reading, furthermore, suggests that the relationship between electronic and printed media may be more complementary than hierarchical, at least in some circumstances. With all that said, I still harbor some reservations about the remarkable synergy Oprah’s Book Club achieved with the everyday lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of women in the

Authors: Striphas, Theodore.
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Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club
24
Book Club together rearticulated these received categories into a highly sophisticated – and markedly
different – economy of cultural value in which proximity and pertinence to everyday life superceded
what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) calls the “icy solemnity” of decrepit aesthetic labels (p. 34).
The success of Oprah’s Book Club, moreover, may help to temper the oft-repeated (and
indeed highly prosaic) charges about declining interest in and commitment to books and book reading,
which typically authorize critics to make heady claims about the “dumbing down” of U.S. culture in
an era supposedly dominated by electronic media (see, e.g., Postman, 1986; Gitlin, 1997). The
sudden, intensive interest in the Book Club and its communicative efforts to bring in non-readers at all
levels suggests that an extensive yet largely untapped book reading public existed in the U.S. prior to
the Club’s formation, particularly among women; indeed, many more of these nascent publics may
exist today. Thus, critics who attribute an apparent disinterest in books and book reading to an
intellectual downturn in U.S. culture or to the putatively deleterious effects of electronic media may
overlook a far more mundane explanation for these phenomena. The highly sophisticated
communicative strategies employed on Oprah’s Book Club throw into relief the global book
publishing industry’s general ineffectiveness at communicating the relevance of books and book
reading to specific social groups in terms other than primarily aesthetic ones – the popular “. . . for
Dummies” series notwithstanding. But make no mistake: Winfrey, her producers, and the members of
Oprah’s Book Club were engaged in the work of distinction, despite their persistent refusal to discuss
and classify Book Club selections within the framework received aesthetic categories. Their work
consisted not just of finding “good books,” however, but more importantly books that fit – an
intractable alchemy that has vexed the book industry for a century. That The Oprah Winfrey Show
proved a critical vehicle for stimulating interest in books and book reading, furthermore, suggests that
the relationship between electronic and printed media may be more complementary than hierarchical,
at least in some circumstances.
With all that said, I still harbor some reservations about the remarkable synergy Oprah’s Book
Club achieved with the everyday lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of women in the


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