The ever-expanding universe of Oprah.

Brace yourself. Oprah’s Book Club is back, and this time she’s targeting Literature with a capital “L.”

Last week, Oprah Winfrey announced plans to restart her influential Book Club after cancelling it almost a year ago. Unlike her original book club, which only featured works from living authors, the new club will focus on classics. Tentatively titled “Travelling with the Classics,” it will examine three to five books a year, and each show will originate from a relevant location, such as the author’s birthplace or the book’s setting.

What does this mean for the works of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc.? According to, Winfrey wants to “make classic works of literature accessible to every woman and man who reads.” Setting aside the implied conceit that classic literature is inherently inaccessible, the question remains: would making something “accessible” entail dumbing down complicated issues? Would it mean, for example, glossing over the political aspects of novels to focus on courtship plots instead?

The club’s travel-based format also suggests simplification. Presenting the place where a book is set or where an author was born can provide useful historical and cultural contexts. With classics, however, it is likely that these locales have changed over the decades. The sooty, Industrial Revolution-era London of Charles Dickens is not the modern London of today. Additionally, as the Book Club episode on Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance demonstrates, filming a foreign location lends itself to exoticization. During the Mistry episode, a camera follows the Indian-born author around Bombay as he rides a streetcar, browses in a market, and pensively stares into the setting sun. Throw in the fact that no one (not even Mistry) mentions that he currently lives in Canada, and the Othering is complete.

At the root of my concerns is a larger anxiety about Winfrey’s enormous influence. In addition to telling her viewers what to read, Winfrey also implicitly tells them what to think about what they read. Every book club selection, no matter how good or bad, becomes a best seller, and every episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show is watched by millions. No one else in the world has that kind of power.

The anxiety over the book club is symbolized by the trademark O-logo that adorns the covers of her chosen books. Bright and obtrusive, the logo is not a sticker but a permanent part of the cover art (pity the poor cover designers!). As is the case with movie tie-ins, it is also monopolistically impossible to find a book without a logo after an Oprah benediction.

The yellow “O” is synonymous with the Oprah Winfrey Show, which is in turn associated with certain values such as loving yourself, persevering and being a strong person. Through her new book club, Winfrey invites readers “to visit or revisit a universe of books of enduring usefulness, because I believe that the sublimity of this experience, this gift to ourselves, is something that we owe to ourselves.”

Earth to Oprah: Different people read books for different reasons, and not all of them involve rewarding themselves. It is this narrow focus on O-approved values that makes the new book club so disturbing. Great, classic works of literature do not and cannot comfortably fit the values associated with the Oprah brand. The fear, however, is that books will be reinterpreted with these brand values in mind, and as such, careful, thoughtful and insightful readings of novels will be relegated to the cutting room floor.

Will this actually happen when “Travelling with the Classics” finally airs or will good judgement prevail instead? A glance at Winfrey’s picks for the original book club uncovers a range of authors, including Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and illustrious man of letters Bill Cosby (yes, that Bill Cosby), who appears twice.

William Shakespeare, prepare to be “Oprahfied.”


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