Oprah and the Intellectuals

Oprah never tried winning over intellectuals. Instead she gave a large number of Americans back their sense of self-esteem.



We will miss the way she made us feel. We will miss the way she made us laugh. And we will miss the way she encouraged us to take risks—in life, in relationships, and, for a specific section of her fans, in what we read. While intellectuals rarely acknowledge the power of Oprah’s medium (talk)—or of her message (talk about it)—the crux of Oprah’s legacy may well be that she made it all right to reach beyond what society said one’s necessary limitations were, and this includes what one is capable of intellectually. If intellectual capability, and confidence, begins with reading and books, Oprah gave a large number of Americans back their sense of self-esteem.

Oprah never tried winning over intellectuals; in fact, the spirit of her show and of her world-view is distinctly, and perhaps blessedly, anti-elitist—and it seems that the term “elitist,” to her, includes those who see the world in terms of People Who Read, and People Who Watch Television.

This binary view of what matters in culture exploded before Oprah’s show, but she assisted in bridging the divide by refusing to lower her sights when it came to the books she selected. Consider the list. East of Eden. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Anna Karenina. As I Lay Dying. The Road. The complete set of selections is breathtaking in its depth, and yet there is no attempt to be definitive, or progressive, or canonical—as opposed to when, in a project overseen by then-President Harry Evans, The Modern Library produced their One Hundred Best Novels List.

Evans describes the vision for this in his recently released memoir, "My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times." And that list was meaningful, and important, and presided over by a series of fantastic and erudite judges. Oprah’s “List” is a different and distinctly personal beast: it is unapologetically composed of books that moved her, and which she feels will move us. These books are not all easy to read. These books are not designed for the beach. Yet these are books in which the characters experience unique emotional upheavals, and Unique Emotional Upheaval is Oprah’s true art. This is why she stands to be as fine a professor of literature as many others. She tells us what the books made her feel, and this, in the end, manages to mainline something—if not our deepest analysis of great literature, then perhaps our most potent memories of books which have changed the way we see the world. 

In the New York Times review of the film version of McCarthy’s The Road, the reviewer asks, “Is that how the world will end? With polite applause?” Well, of course no one knows how the world ends, but now we know how Oprah’s show will—at least the iteration of it that we’ve known for years. There will be applause, but it won’t be polite. It will be earth-shattering.

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