Chief among the tics of humankind that drive me to distraction is Oprah-bashing. She’s too rich. She doesn’t help the world enough. Her book club popularizes cheap literature.
That last one makes me absolutely insane. Not just because it unforgivably devalues some amazing authors, and not just because it bespeaks an unsufferable elitism, not just because it feels like a deep, indirect insult to the folks I know who got a lot out of the club.
It chafed me most because what Oprah was doing — constructive an alternative, contemporary canon — thrilled me. I’m kind of an inveterate detractor of The Canon, in general. Lists of recommended texts are useful, of course. But anything purporting to be The Authoritative List of Greatest Works is simply a religious artifact, founded entirely on faith. The way I see it, we each have a canon. The task of constructing it, work by work, to form a lens onto the world is part of why we keep reading our entire lives.
Of course, the idea that each person has her own canon subverts the Canon entirely. Of course, I’m all for that, ’cause I think the idea of the Canon subverts literature entirely. The idea that there’s one complete list of Works To Be Read strikes me as anti-literary. (I understand the Canon is intended to be a basis for further enlightenment or whatever, but I don’t think that’s how most people who are not Harold Bloom treat it. His Western Canon is long enough to occupy most people for the majority of their lives.)
I was disappointed to hear that Oprah was abandoning the initial contemporary focus of her book club for a seemingly safer “classics” approach. It felt like she was retreating from the exciting business of creating her own canon and falling back on this boring old Canon that already exists. So I’m delighted to hear the real Oprah’s Book Club is back.
Yes, there are great books. No, The Celestine Prophecy is pretty inarguably not the literary equal of, say, Remembrance of Things Past. But I can imagine a canon that includes the former and not the latter. And cheers to that.