Tuesday, December 7, 2010
The biggest surprise of yesterday's Oprah Winfrey Show wasn't the sight of Jonathan Franzen smiling and saying he was "glad to be here," nor was it the fact that Franzen's long-awaited Book Club segment was squeezed to a mere fraction of what it should have been as the producers made way for late-breaking guests "education reformer" Michelle Rhee and Michael Jackson's "secret family" (which was a pop surprise in its own right), or the fact that each of the audience members got a new graphite-colored Kindle, all of them erupting in girly screams and melting into puddles of gratitude (criminey, ladies, it's only $139, fer cryin' out loud!).
No, the biggest jaw-dropper came when La Oprah admitted that she had never read anything by Charles Dickens. "Shamefully, I must admit to you all that I have never read Dickens," she told her audience. Wow. Not even A Christmas Carol? Just goes to show that all the money in the world can't buy you enough time to read good books.
So now, the talk show queen is kickin' it "old-old school" with two Victorian classics which will be the oldest picks of her 14-year-old book club. Good for her. And good for all her viewers who will be having a "date with Dickens" this month.
Four days ago, after "hints" about Oprah's 65th book club selection (published by Penguin Books, available in paperback and on the Kindle, etc.) were "leaked" to the press, I smugly told my wife, "I'll bet I could figure it out." Lack of time and too many circumstances kept me from applying any brain power to figuring it out--and, yes, I do have better things to do with my time than to sit around and prognosticate Oprah Winfrey--but I was happy to see she chose A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations for her 65-A and 65-B book club pick. It's no secret I'm a Dickens cheerleader (complete with pom-poms and high kicks).
I was happy, but not terribly surprised. "Dickens for the holidays" (as Ms. Winfrey sang in her trademark Oprah-Opera warble yesterday) is a perfect fit, calendar-wise. This is the time of year when all hearts turn toward the "father of Christmas." Choosing A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations was also appropriate given the fact that Jonathan Franzen, one of our most Dickensian of modern novelists, was there to give his endorsement of the club pick ("It's a real page-turner" was his in-depth analysis of A Tale of Two Cities when the cameras cut to him sitting in the audience).
Sadly, very little was said during the show about Freedom, Franzen's own sprawling socially-conscious novel. Some of us had been waiting nearly a decade for this interview, and were disappointed to find that discussion of one of the year's best books was as light and brief as skipping a stone across water. Most of the conversation between Oprah and the apparently-uncomfortable author (call him Mr. Frozen) revolved around their all-too-public spat nine years ago--a fight which both were quick to blame on the media.
(To refresh your memory: Oprah chose Franzen's The Corrections for her book club, Franzen gave an interview in which he worried that the "O" sticker would scare away male readers, the quote was taken out of context, and Oprah "disinvited" Franzen to a dinner with book clubbers.)
Yesterday, a contrite Franzen said: "You know, I spoke in very long sentences. And then little pieces of the sentences sounded bad, and your feelings were probably understandably hurt. Next thing we knew, it had become this thing." Either way, Franzen seemed about as comfortable sitting in Oprah's guest chair as he would be if it were made of sharpened tacks. In that sense, it was good he was only on camera for less than 10 minutes. Any longer and it would have just been too painful to watch.
One can only imagine the must-see television of an encounter between Oprah and Charles Dickens, were he alive today to sit in her (un)easy chair. Think of his witty comebacks when Oprah asked him, "So, what would you consider 'the worst of times' in your life?" Or the way he would regale the audience when asked to read a selection from Pip's adventures on the marsh. Or how Oprah would pin him to his seat, withering him into mumbled half-truths when she tried to steer the conversation toward his stifled childhood as a bootblack or the fresh rumors of his affair with an actress seventeen years his junior.
O, what a Dickens of a time that would be!