Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oprah's Dickens

Hillary Kelly at The New Republic is experiencing considerable agitá about Oprah’s selection of two Dickens novels for her book club:

But what can Oprah really bring to the table with these books? Oprah has said that, together, the novels will “double your reading pleasure.” But is that even true? And do the novels even complement each other? Can you connect Miss Havisham’s treatment of time to Carton’s misuse of his “youthful promise”? Well, don’t ask Oprah herself, as she “shamefully” admits she has “never read Dickens.” . . .

Even more confusingly, Oprah’s comments about Dickens making for cozy reading in front of a winter fire misinterprets the large-scale social realism of his work. It stands to reason that her sentimentalized view of Dickens might stem from A Christmas Carol — probably his most family-friendly read and one of his most frequently recounted tales. But her quaint view of Victoriana, as she’s expressed it, belies an ignorance of Dickens’s authorial intentions. Indeed, both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are dark and disturbing, with elaborate ventures into the seedy underbelly of London and the bloody streets of Paris. How can we trust a literary guide who, ignorant of the terrain ahead, promises us it will be light and easy? . . .

Indeed, Oprah’s readers have been left in the dark. They must now scramble about to decipher Dickens’s obscure dialectical styling and his long-lost euphemisms. . . .

And so on — at considerable length. Yes, we certainly can't countenance such a thing — masterpieces of literature being read by naïve people lacking certified professional instruction! Oh, the humanity! What if someone got caught up in Pip’s love for Estella, or Sydney Carton’s noble self-sacrifice, but failed to parse Dickens’s incisive critique of the Victorian social order? Can you imagine the consequences?

Kelly’s core concern is summed up here: “the sad truth is that, with no real guidance, readers cannot grow into lovers of the canon.” Cannot? Actually, that isn't a sad truth — it’s not a truth at all — though it is quite sad that someone thinks the world’s greatest works of art are so powerless to reach an audience without academic assistance. As a corrective to such dark thoughts she should read another Dickens novel, David Copperfield, especially this passage:

My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time, — they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii, — and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. . . . It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them — as I did — and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones — which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child's Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe.

“This was my only and my constant comfort,” David concludes. “When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life.”

Reading as if for life. And with no teachers in sight. A miracle indeed; but one repeated every day. Oprah is giving many, many people an incentive to have experiences like David Copperfield’s, and by my lights that’s not a bad thing.


  • Thanks for this, Alan. The TNR piece is odd and wrong in many ways. It's insistence that only the elite can read and appreciate Dickens is a large part of what's wrong about it. And it's tied, of course, to a deeply snotty attitude about Oprah and her audience, who are, horrifyingly, *consumers*. So I'm with you: Oprah giving people an incentive to read and to discover loving reading is a good thing, no matter the process by which they get there.

    The comment that you don't pick up on that struck me particularly is the horror Kelly feels that people might think of reading novels as "a chance to learn more about themselves." It's certainly not how I teach in my college classrooms. And I'm not endorsing novels as self-help manuals. But that personal connection to what we're reading is actually exactly how we read--the ways in which we respond to all texts are about ourselves. I hope my students are able to read in ways that aren't only about relating it to themselves. But it's foolish to imagine that we come as a blank slate to a novel, poem, or play in order to discover the meaning that is buried in it. The great beauty of thinking about the personal connections we have to reading is that it does help us read as if for life. And I'll admit that even the scholarship I've published comes out of the personal connection I have to reading.

  • "...belies an ignorance of Dickens’s authorial intentions."

    Oh yes, our old and dear friend intentions. How lovely to see you again!

    And yes, while it's not hard to believe the writer has such a low opinion of Oprah's fans, it's a little startling to find out she has such a low opinion of Dickens. But then I seem to recall being (very) turned off of the who "criticism" enterprise by the claim that it is only the reader imbues a text with meaning. At the time I understood "reader" to mean "credentialed academic", and here (and elsewhere) that understanding seems like it still holds sway.

    (No wonder I'm daydreaming about Polynesian style catamarans instead of diplomas.)

  • I'm a little troubled about this analysis, the yeah-what-he-said comments, and the follow-up post. My intuitions aren't clear or strong enough to condemn anything or anyone (which is dumb anyway), but I can't agree with your conclusions or the sarcasm used to express them. I wouldn't want to reduce Oprah fans to a single characterization anymore than Rush Limbaugh's fans deserve the epithet "dittoheads," but to deny that a preponderance of uncritical, zombie-like, pro-Oprah sentiment might be at work seems too simple as well. Oprah is certainly aware of her own market power when she recommends book titles, and as a rather self-serious inspirational figure, her influence is similarly well established. Her style and pet projects have shifted over time (mostly in response to failure), but she habitually situates herself at the center of attention and as a conduit to a fairly specific groupthink. Like other people who are at the center of hype, she probably believes a good deal of it. Backlash and resentment of her enterprises (e.g., the linked article or the book The Age of Oprah) are not idle considerations.

    As to Dickens, reading, and the downgrading of expertise as a worthwhile or necessary mediator, is anyone really proscribing reading Dickens (or anything else) for pleasure or requiring a suitable academic guide? As soon as authority and expertise are brought to bear, Americans, laden with their misunderstanding of democratic and egalitarian concepts, lob charges of elitism, snobbery, classism, etc. If not reading purely for pleasure, when purpose is what one makes of it, can anyone really read very effectively if the reflexive posture (as Oprah both recommends and does herself) is to stridently assert one's individuality and seek identification within a wholly foreign context? Allan Bloom wrote eloquently that without submission to authority and respect for expertise, the learning enterprise fails. But that doesn't really matter for Oprah. She's selling, not teaching.

  • "She's selling, not teaching.

    And obviously one is superior to the other?

  • Brutus, it's best not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Oprah will get hundred of thousands, perhaps millions, of people to read two Dickens novels who otherwise would never have bothered. Under such circumstances it seems needlessly picky, I think, to complain that they won't be reading the books the right way or that Oprah makes money on the deal.

    Besides, these readers will do a lot better on their own than under the tutelage of many an English professor I could name. . . .

  • I'm certainly not saying anyone shouldn't read Dickens on their own or get in the way of Oprah's commercial interests. No one appears to be saying that. But questioning the value of either of those things is a credible argument. You object, stating "better something than nothing." That's fine with me, but the counter-argument is closer to my sentiments. So as I said before, I'm not condemning anything.

  • During my 14th summer with no guidance, not a trained academic in sight, in complete ignorance of the author's work and scrambling to decipher the book's obscurer moments, I decided to read Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Talk about naive. It required me to develop a level of patience and a different pace of thought than I'd ever considered necessary before. Probably half of what I read escaped me, figuring generously, but I didn't realize it. Finishing the book was a triumph and a glimpse at the amazing ability of literature to be something so unfamiliar and yet so involving.

    I picture a woman out there, nearly as naive and unschooled, and imagine her embarking on a similar adventure, emerging a better and changed reader for it, and - well, it makes me smile. To imagine Oprah and her legion of fans similarly challenged - now that gives me chills.

    P.S. Tried adding these observations to the more diversified reactions over at TNR, but as a non-subscriber, couldn't post.

  • In 11th grade, I took a semester of Reading for Pleasure. I got to spend the whole time reading what I wanted, and I spent it reading Dickens.
    I laughed out loud reading this.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]