What Publishing Can Learn, Part II

I can hear you groaning already. “Oprah? Really?” Yes, really. “Hasn’t that already been done to death?” No. In fact, there’s an awful lot left to say about Oprah and books.

I won’t get into the debate over whether Oprah’s killing (or has already killed) literature. I deal with that issue at length in The Late Age of Print, the book, and so I’ll leave that strand of the argument for there. Instead, I want to reflect here on what Oprah might tell us about the teaching of literature on the one hand, and about the form of books on the other.

Over the years I’ve pored over dozens of transcripts from The Oprah Winfrey Show — mostly those featuring Oprah’s Book Club. What’s impressed me time and again is how willing Oprah and her producers seem to be to meet readers — and, indeed, non-readers — wherever they are educationally and to usher them into the world of letters.

For example, one episode I looked at featured Oprah traipsing around a big-box bookstore, commenting on all the different books and amenities. I wish she’d also visited an independent bookstore or a public library, but even so the visit was telling. Most people — but especially English teachers — presume that literary instruction begins, well, in the literary classroom, with literary concerns. But what Oprah shows us is that there’s a prior element missing from most formal literary instruction, namely, dedicated lessons in where and how best to acquire books. In fact, I received an email from Oprah’s Book Club just the other day giving me tips on how to shop for books in a recession. Used books and second-hand bookstores figured prominently. Did your literature teachers ever consider offering advice like this?

Those who are already Terrarium well ensconced in the world of letters easily forget how intimidating their world can be for outsiders looking in. If you want to excite people about books and reading, take the time to show them in, and don’t belittle them for not already knowing the way.

My second vignette happened last October, when Oprah decided to endorse Amazon.com’s e-reader, Kindle. She effused about its portability and ease of use, and delighted in the speed with which she could acquire e-titles wirelessly. No big surprises there; that’s pretty much the standard story with Kindle. What did surprise me, however, was the utter exuberance one of the device’s more seemingly banal features seemed to inspire in Oprah and her studio audience. That feature was Kindle’s built-in dictionary.

Their exuberance ought to be telling us something. And that “something” is all about people’s implicit dissatisfaction with the form of print-on-paper books. We live in a time of rising expectations in terms of ease of access to information. If I’m trolling the web and encounter a word I don’t know, I can have multiple, highly-reliable definitions delivered to me within seconds. But if I’m reading a paper book and run across, say, “sybarite,” I have to stop reading, get up, walk across the room, and hope my dictionary contains the entry. So why don’t publishers begin including glossaries and other such readerly amenities in their books as standard features, to save people the trouble?

Maybe this suggestion sounds far-fetched. Yet it’s no more far-fetched than breaking books up into chapters, or including tables of contents, page numbers, indexes, and so forth. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that the “standard” formal attributes of books haven’t always existed. Every last one of them had to be invented, and each was invented in response to historically specific needs. (Check out some of the images of early printed books in Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy to see what I mean.) Perhaps it’s time, then, to revisit the form of the printed book and to re-engineer it for a 21st century media context.

Who knew a television talk show host could tell us so much about a medium that’s supposedly being killed by…television?



  1. As a pretty well-read person, I rarely encounter a book whose definition I couldn’t parse out, but I still much prefer annotated editions with notes on obscure words and references — I wish that format were more the standard in trade books.

  2. As a pretty well-read person, I rarely encounter a word whose definition I couldn’t parse out at least a little, but I still much prefer annotated editions with notes on obscure words and references — I wish that format were more the standard in trade books.

  3. Ted Striphas says:

    I agree. I remember reading books like that in high school, and from time to time today I encounter well-edited texts (usually translations) rich in value-added information. The new translation of Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art” immediately comes to mind. There’s something appealing to me about books like this, which contain multiple textual layers.

  4. […] This is the third and final installment in a multi-part series reflecting on how the publishing industry might connect better with readers.  You can read part I, on The Da Vinci Code, by clicking here.  Part II, on Oprah, is available here. […]