Thursday, May 03, 2007

Don’t tell me what Oprah is reading. . .

. . .tell me what you are reading. Actually I have nothing against Oprah or her book club; in fact, it has been said that the impact of her endorsement of a book is so profound that it will catapult the selection to best seller status overnight. (Parenthetically, before he was fired, Don Imus had a similar, though not quite so great, effect.) Of course, woe unto the author whose book is selected and who turns out to be a fraud.

Currently, our daughter lives in NYC and a bit more than a year ago, when my husband and I went to visit her, we decided to drive part way and take the train the remainder. Soon after we got on the train, and had just passed Trenton, NJ, two men got on the train and sat opposite us. They were conversing animatedly in what was clearly not English. I recognize a few languages, but not what they were speaking. Dying of curiosity, I finally asked them where they were from. It turns out they were Swedish businessmen who had been in Trenton doing business with state regulators.

After a very few brief pleasantries, they said—so tell us, what is this thing with Oprah about? This was very soon after James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, had gone on the Oprah show for the second time, this time to defend his highly embellished (that is to say—false) autobiography and to be brow-beaten by Oprah. We answered the Swedish businessmen’s question by making sure they knew who Oprah was, and about her book club. Then tried to fill in the background of this author, his lies, and Oprah’s tongue-lashing of him. Afterwards I thought—how unfortunate that these visitors’ only question about the U.S. was about what had happened on Oprah.

I am very pleased that Oprah has had such an effect on people’s reading habits. However, when I go about deciding what to read, I use a different standard. I select a book through several criteria, and upon completing my reading, I decide how good the read was by a few more criteria.

Here’s what I look for.

First, a great opening. Pick a book up, open it, and read the first line. Does the first line grab you? If so, chances are the book will too.

We all remember “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities) or “Call me Ishmael.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick). Actually, while Moby Dick is a classic, I admit it is tough going at times!

Or how about “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita)

Once I read an opening line such as these, I decide if I am compelled to read more. If you want to read more opening lines,
go here.

Second, as I am reading a work, I look for several things: a great scene; character development; character driven plot not plot driven characters, and a lasting impression.

Here are some examples. Charles Dickens is widely regarded as one of the masters of character development in fiction. But he also has one of the greatest scenes of all time. By great scene, I mean a specific description of an event, a place, or an encounter that is so startling, so riveting that it lingers in the imagination long after the book has been finished and set aside. Dickens’ novel
Great Expectations has just such a scene. Pip, the central character, has been hired by Miss Havisham. When Pip makes a visit to her decaying mansion, he enters the dining room to see it set for a feast that will never happen. Miss Havisham, dressed always in a faded yellow wedding gown, was jilted by her fiancé just before the wedding, decades ago. The dining room has all the places set for guests, the wedding cake, and everything festooned in cobwebs. It takes the reader’s breath away—and stays in the mind’s eye forever. That scene alone captures Miss Havisham's entire character.

I can think of many other such scenes, too many to write about here. Think of scenes like the green light at the end of the dock that Gatsby keeps looking at. Or Holden Caufield sadly wondering where the ducks in Central Park go when the winter freezes the pond. Or Atticus Finch wearily leaving the courtroom with all the black townspeople in the balcony silently standing. Suffice it to say, for me, every good book has a great scene in it.

Character development and a character driven plot go hand in hand. The unforgivable sin an author can commit is to manipulate his (her) characters as though they were puppets. Such an author is constantly doing things TO his characters. Good character development means that each character is separate, unique. For example, you can tell good character development if you can put dialogue in a character’s mouth and not have any other character be able to say those words. A character has his or her own unique voice. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. Her marvelous novel
The Poisonwood Bible has an entire family of characters. She tells the story by rotating among the women in the family, each of them speaking in her own voice. There is a sense that even Kingsolver does not know what these characters will do until they have done it.

The criteria of creating a lasting impression really need no explanation. I have read novels that I forget almost as soon as I read them. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them—I do. But I do not think of these works as great literature. I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s series on the # 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but I am not likely to remember the plots of these works long into the future. But I remember a novel such as
Bastard Out of Carolina, and its main character Bone (or Ruth Ann Boatwright). The novel sears with its dark vision, but it is memorable. Or Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy—they continue to live in my mind long after the novel is finished and closed.

Books are so much a passion of mine that several years ago I began to record each book that I have read. I tried to recreate a list going back into my college days, and I update it with each new book I read. Some of the books on that list may even be ones Oprah recommended, but many more of them are ones that I picked!

So what are you reading?


Laurie said...

I'm reading the Bureau of Land (Mis)Management Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Coalbed Methane Phased Development in the Tongue River watershed in southern Montana. I can't say much for either the writing style or the character development, but the "plot" is to develop Coalbed Methane despite the devastating effects it will have on the ecosystem of the Tongue River.

Cathy said...

Donna, this is wonderful. What I'd like to know now - what are perhaps your 5 favorite books? You know - the desert island question. If you could only take X number of books - what would they be? I've missed so much and would really enjoy hearing your opinion on this.

LauraHinNJ said...

I feel like such a dummy, as somehow I've never read many of the classics. How can that be? I'm supposed to be (somewhat) well-educated.

A few summers ago, I set about reading some of those great books that I've missed, but found that I was more interested in what I wanted to read, rather than what I *ought* to be reading.

Right now, I'm in the middle of a few non-fiction books. I prefer non-fiction, as somehow it seems to suit my current style of reading-a-few-pages-whenever-I-can better than a fictional story that gets lost over a few days.

Liza Lee Miller said...

I too haven't read many of the classics and I definitely feel the need. All the mention of Miss Havisham makes me want to mention one of my favorite quirky authors . . . Jasper Fforde. His Thursday Next mysteries are fantastic (literally and figuratively) and set in a English literary world -- a grasp of Shakespeare, Dickens, and the Brontes is essential. Quirky and funny and exciting stuff.

That said, right now, I'm re-reading a Nora Roberts trilogy. When I'm working hard, I'm all about escapism. Vampires trying to take over the world seems pretty escapist to me!

Body Soul Spirit said...

I bought myself the latest Alexander McCall Smith book, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, as a treat for the weekend. I read more "book candy" than classics lately. On vacation, I will tackle more heavy reading. I read Bleak House and Les Miserables (unabridged)recently. I have read a number of Oprah's picks, but found many to be depressing stories of dysfunctional American families. I see enough of that at work.

Anvilcloud said...

Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer was a favourite of mine. It's a good story that also teaches about ecology.

Mary said...

I'm with Laura. But she's not a dummy. I prefer non-fiction also, but I have FIVE unfinished books on my nightstand right now and some of them I haven't even started. I usually like to read one book at a time. I long for the days when I'd read for hours...

1. Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird"
2. Anne Lamott's "Traveling Mercies" [a gift from a fellow blogger :o)]
3. Nicholas Spark's "True Believer"
4. John Grogan's "Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog"
5. Bruce & Stan's "God is in the Small Stuff and it all matters"

When summer gets lazy, I'll read them.

I feel as if I know Oprah, in a way. We are a year apart in age. In our early twenties, I lived in Baltimore and she was the evening news TV anchorwoman on WJZ-TV. I followed her to first talk show in the mornings, "People are Talking" in the early 80's. She left Baltimore in 1984 and I watched her show in Chicago after that and still do, whenever I have time. I'd love to meet her.

Pam said...

I just finished an excellent story that takes place in northern Vermont. "Northern Borders" by Howard Frank Mosher, a coming of age tale about a boy living with his grandparents.
I also loved "The Secret Life of Bees," can't remember the author.

KGMom said...

Laurie--your reading sounds positively sleep inducing, but it sounds like the topic is of great import.
Cathy--I accept your challenge, but it will be the subject of a blog. And of course, I will cheat.
Laura--my moment of liberation: when I stopped teaching at the first college I taught, and said--I will never again read a book I don't want to read. Not all classics are read-worthy. Interesting you like non-fiction; nothing at all wrong with that.
Liza Lee--thanks for stopping by. I don't know Jasper Fforde. His mysteries sound intriguing. I love mysteries!
Ruth--I haven't gotten the latest Precious Ramotswe book yet; I will have to. I enjoy them very much.
AC--I love anything by Barbara Kingsolver, and agree that Prodigal Summer was very good. It taught me a lot about coyotes.
Mary--your nightstand sounds like mine. Piled high, like planes waiting to land. I love Annie Lamott--Bird by Bird is as good a description of writing as I have read.
Pam--I don't know your Vermont author. I loved Secret Life of Bees--author is Sue Monk Kidd.

Dorothy said...

Hi Donna, thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment.
I do appreciate your visit.

Your advice on how to choose a good book is excellent.

I'm into nonfiction as well..I love biographies, sometimes self-help, occasionally I'll read a good mystery novel if it comes highly recommended. As a young girl I loved reading Nancy Drew. As for Oprah, although I do like her show for the most part, her book club seems to feature books that are dark and depressing...and not easy reads. When I read, I want a book that will grab my interest right away, the kind of book that is hard to put down, one that doesn't take a lot of work to figure out the meaning behind each sentence. For me, reading must be a pleasurable pasttime, enjoyable and not work.

If it weren't for the computer, I would probably read a lot more than I do. By the time I get round to opening a book, it's later at night, and I usually end up falling asleep after a few pages.

Climenheise said...

I agree with those who find your reading list daunting! I like to read, but not nearly on your scale. For some favourites? 1) Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien generally) remains at the top of the list. I've read the trilogy upwards of 20 times. I know there are those who've explored Middle Earth much more deeply than I, but I have enjoyed myself anyway. 2)Dorothy Sayers on Peter Wimsey (and other mystery writes: Ngaio Marsh, especially). 3) Older essayists like Macaulay. Reading them reminds me how much has changed in the past 200 years in our world. 4) A variety of non-fiction, such as biographies (I'm reading Don Bradman's autobiography at the moment) and histories. 5) Theology and philosophy: not too deep, but enough to keep pushing my boundaries.

I hear what you say about plot development and characters, and obviously I notice them when I read fiction. But in all of my reading I am looking to expand my thinking somehow, and to enter a variety of other worlds.

The trouble with reading a lot is that I spend so much time reading student papers and the texts I assign that I want to do something else: play chess, or soccer, or solitaire even!

thailandchani said...

Coming in late here, I know. :)

I just finished Oprah's last selection "The Road" and found it to be okay.. nothing particularly noteworthy. The writing was kind of strange and the storyline was fairly predictable.

She appeals to a certain type of reader and I get that.

Right now, I'm reading a book called "Spaces Between Us" which is about two women in Bombay, current times. It's very good!