Thoughts on Oprah’s Book Club

In 2001, you may remember, Oprah took Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections off her book club list after the author told interviewers that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with her endorsement.

The media portrayed Franzen as a snob worried that Oprah’s sticker would debase his masterpiece, but I think he had good reasons for doubting whether Oprah’s endorsement was good for his book. The presence of that gold sticker on the cover could label the novel as just the latest offering from Oprah’s self-improvement empire, and not the insightful work of fiction he intended it to be.

When Franzen finally released his next novel, Freedom, this year, Oprah offered him a second chance to contribute to her club, and he accepted without expressing any qualms. He even appeared on Oprah’s show earlier this week for a discussion on the book, which you can watch here.

I’ve always been skeptical about Oprah and her effect on American society. Her influence scares me, especially when she promotes self-help hacks like Dr. Phil who offer a cheap, sensational way of looking at life. After watching her discussion with Franzen and looking more closely at her book club, however, I’ve come to think that my opinion of her was mistaken. I give Oprah credit for motivating millions of Americans not only to read, but to read challenging, thoughtful books. In addition to Freedom, her book club list includes worthwhile books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and Elie Wiesel’s Night, as well as classics like East of Eden by John Steinbeck and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I guess I was mistaken when I thought the list consisted mostly of phony redemption stories like A Million Little Pieces.

I was also impressed by the questions Oprah and her audience asked Franzen about his book. They seemed to have thought hard about its meaning and its application to their lives, which is how books should be read.

Oprah is a rare example of an influential media person who is actually concerned with steering our culture in a better direction, instead of just pleasing the masses to make a quick buck. I don’t know enough about the rest of her empire to offer an opinion of her overall effect on our society – like I said, I don’t like Dr. Phil’s way of looking at things, and I know she’s caused some controversy by giving a platform to people who claim that immunization shots cause autism. But I support what she’s doing with her book club.

Cold As A Witch’s . . .

As we stepped outside into the frigid air this morning — the temperature was in the low teens — I thought:  “It’s as cold as a witch’s [body part].”  And then I wondered, why do we use that colorful phrase?

According to Wikipedia and some other sources, a “witch’s teat” or “witch’s mark” was supposedly a mark left on witches by the devil.  And since witches are presumed to be mean, soulless creatures, they would presumably be cold, or indifferent.

I don’t buy that explanation for the phrase.  I doubt most people associate witches with cold (or indifference, for that matter).  After all, the best known witch in modern American culture, the Wicked Witch of the West, first appeared in the Munchkin Land in a pillar of flame, and she was able to threaten the Scarecrow by hurling fireballs.  These are not powers you would expect to be possessed by some icy person.  It would be as if Iceman from the X-Men traded powers with the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four.  That simply doesn’t happen.  You’re either hot or cold, and the Wicked Witch of the West was definitely hot.  (Speaking only of her temperature, of course.)  Indeed, Dorothy killed her by throwing water on her, like she was dousing a fire.  That wouldn’t work on a block of ice.

And, even if witches were generally cold, why refer specifically to that particular body part?  When I am cold, it is the extremities, like feet, hands, and nose, that feel the coldest, not the torso.  Why not give witches a break and use the phrase “cold as a witch’s nose,” instead?  Given the size of the honker on the Wicked Witch of the West, it’s a safe bet that the tip of her proboscis got very cold on a bitter day.