Presentation given at the Popular Culture Association/America Culture Association Annual Meeting

(March 29, 2013)

            The Oprah Winfrey Show first aired in 1986, with a sensationalistic format matching other daytime talk shows of the time.[1] In 1996, Oprah distanced herself from tabloid journalism and reshaped her show to focus on social responsibility and women’s empowerment.[2] According to Trysh Travis, Oprah swapped a genre of dysfunction for a message of awareness steeped in New Thought trends,[3] which, Travis writes, “promote[d] a spiritual message that would counter negative forces at work in the personal lives of individual viewers as well as the world at large.”[4] The show’s new narrative became one of action. Episodes offered advice, urged self-reflection, opened discussions about suffering, and encouraged life transformations.[5] Along with format changes and a shift toward self-help came Oprah’s Book Club.[6] Inclusion of books alongside The Oprah Winfrey Show’s new emphasis on social engagement and self-improvement was natural.[7] Cecilia Farr observes that self-help books routinely dominate bestseller lists,[8] demonstrating that self-improvement “has always included reading good books.”[9]

A central criticism that plagues Oprah’s Book Club comes from the academy, which, Simon Stow notes, emphasizes objective distance from a text and its contents.[10] Rather than encouraging objectivity, Oprah’s Way of Reading injects a novel with subjectivity and expects an affective engagement between novel and reader that creates personal involvement with the narrative. For Travis, Oprah’s “interpretive [reading] mode” cultivates “identification…‘openness’…[and] a state of affective transcendence that derived from and reinforced…New Thought ideals.”[11]

To facilitate my discussion of the relationship between Oprah’s Book Club and the New Thought Movement, I rely on three themes William James extrapolated from New Thought literature and practice: suggestion, surrender, and the subconscious. To move from James’ themes to reading novels, I introduce Jungian literary theory, specifically Inez Martinez’s “reading for psyche,” which emphasizes expansion of conscious boundaries and surrender to a transformative experience of the numinous through literature. Using Martinez, I argue that suggestion, surrender, and subconscious (or unconscious, to use Jung’s terminology), readily appear within Oprah’s Book Club as identification or autobiographical reading, openness or engagement with the text, and transcendence or assimilation of the reader’s unconscious material. I suggest that Oprah’s Book Club exists as part of a twenty-first century continuation of the New Thought Movement wherein novels serve as vehicles through which women may approach healthy-mindedness and make a transcendent connection with the numinous, or,  in Oprah’s language, achieve their personal Ah-ha! Moment.

New Thought: Suggestion, Surrender, and Subconscious

            The New Thought Movement originated with Maine clockmaker, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866)[12] and developed in nineteenth century New Englnd alongside  Transcendentalism, discoveries in electricity, neurology, and nutrition[13] and in the tradition of what Travis calls “dissenting denominations and sects” (i.e., Pietist Christians, Quakers, and Swedenborgians).[14] Though not formally educated, according to his son George, Quimby was “always interested in mechanics, philosophy, and scientific subjects.” After seeing experiments in mesmerism in 1838, Quimby began investigating hypnosis and the mind-body connection,[15] and studied the works of Franz Anton Mesmer, a Viennese psychiatrist who performed healings through “the laying-on of hands, hypnosis, and suggestion.”[16] Witnessing the effect of the mind on the body, Quimby “developed theories of mentally aided healing and opened an office in Portland,”[17] where he taught and practiced.

Quimby based his metaphysical approach to health on the idea that God created humans as healthy, perfect creatures, and viewed the human mind as creative, meaning that an individual’s positive, constructive thoughts will manifest in positive, constructive ways. However, being creative, the mind might also produce unhealthy and negative thoughts that consequently generate an unhealthy and diseased physiology. Thus, Quimby’s work focused on the power words and thoughts had over behavior and belief. After conducting experiments to test his theory of mind, Quimby concluded: “‘man is just what he thinks he is to himself….So I found that belief in everything affects us, yet we are not aware of it because we do not think.’”[18] Part of Quimby’s goal, writes Stewart W. Holmes, was “to undo the false reasoning and teach the patient what should have been the correct interpretation of his first sensations.”[19] Holmes points out that Quimby “developed” these healthy-minded abilities; he was not born with them, which suggests that the healthy mindset of New Thought can be cultivated through proper direction and guidance.[20]

In his lectures On the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James described what he called the Mind-Cure Movement as having “an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes…in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and all nervously precautionary states of mind.”[21] In his exposition on New Thought principles, James concentrated on three themes he found operating within the movement: suggestion, surrender, and subconscious. Rather than imply that New Thought is based on the notion that one should just be happy and healthy, suggestion indicates the principle that an individual’s ideas have power over behavior and belief (or, perception). Surrender refers to an individual’s letting go, or giving herself over to an outside numinous power (i.e., God) and remaining open to what that power sends her way.[22] Finally, James saw a distinct relationship to and use of the subconscious in New Thought writings, a developing psychological subject of the time. According to Donald F. Duclow, “Mind-cure developed techniques to tap into this ‘submerged personality’ [i.e., the unconscious] and shape its impact on conscious life and health.”[23] For New Thought, the divine resides within the subconscious, and if we take time to be still with our subconscious, the divine will permeate consciousness.

Although not traditionally associated with the New Thought (or Mind-Cure) Movement, the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung reflects a development of James’ themes and helps us move from Quimby’s psychotherapy to a transformative experience of reading.

Jung & Martinez: Compensation, Interiority & Reading for Psyche

            Jung’s analytical psychology is rooted in the understanding that an individual can overcome obstacles that create suffering by attending to her unconscious psychic contents and integrating this material into consciousness to restore psychological balance. This process aims to help an individual reach a deeper level of self-awareness in which she realizes all aspects of her personality and capabilities,[24] and experiences psychological growth and change.[25] To assist patients in their self-realization, Jung examined “dreams and all other manifestations of the [patient’s] unconscious,”[26] which included drawing, painting, and writing.[27] According to Jung, dreams present unconscious material to consciousness, thereby compensating an individual’s conscious awareness.[28] Thus, by observing the cognitive process at work in dreams (or other creative endeavors), an individual may gain knowledge of her suffering, advance self-awareness, and discover a means of overcoming obstacles that cause suffering. If successful, this self-realization may produce, what Jung calls, “a transformation of the general attitude,” which he likens to the religious conversion of St. Paul, associating growth of consciousness with a conversion experience.[29]

As with New Thought emphasis on suggestion, surrender, and the subconscious, Jung’s method requires the proper suggestion of unconscious material, as helpful rather than hurtful, to affect change and lead an individual to a healthy-minded perception of herself and the world. Through this suggestion, an individual may recognize first that her psychological perception influences her personality, worldview, and her experience of the world, and then learn how to remove the psychological ties that confine her to suffering. The New Thought Movement and Jungian analytic psychology share a complementary view of perception as a powerful tool and a powerful obstacle to a healthy, balanced psyche, and both recognize broadening conscious awareness includes an experience with God (or a numinous power). New Thought and Jung further understand that the foundation for a healthy mind requires an individual to surrender, or let herself go, to the numinous experience that occurs through contact with the unconscious (for Jung) or the subconscious (for New Thought).

The move from Jungian dream theory to literature comes through Jung’s declaration that “the human psyche is the womb of all the arts and sciences,”[30] implying the psyche is the origin for dreams and literature alike. Jung observes that literature shares the compensatory and transformative character of dreams, along with similar content and a similar need for interpretation.[31] I suggest that literature and dreams also share similar goals: to facilitate an individual’s inner psychological transformation. While Jung stopped short of instructing us how to read so as to engage these compensatory elements, Inez Martinez proposes “reading for psyche,” an alternate way of reading that opens an individual to a transformative experience with the numinous through literature.

Martinez argues that literature attempts to induce “an internalizing of experience,” or self-reflection, in readers, an experience we are inclined to refuse. Rejecting such an experience consequently prevents us from asking what Martinez considers an all-important question: “What does my pain mean?” As a product of the psyche, Martinez asserts that literature helps us grapple with the meaning of suffering.[32] For this to occur, an individual must read with a willingness to experience something numinous that challenges her beliefs and compels a widening of her perspective. Rather than find what you already agree with in a text, when reading for psyche, an individual must loosen her limited boundaries of perception and read for an experience of what the literature reveals to her,[33] that is, for what the numinous communicates through the literature. Martinez warns that reading for psyche is dangerous because it exposes a reader to values she might oppose, and forces a conscious choice to either reassess long-held values or resist the experience altogether.[34]

Martinez’s “reading for psyche” and the New Thought Movement share a belief that transformation of perception requires an openness to what is beyond oneself, that is, a willingness to encounter the numinous. In the context of New Thought themes of suggestion, surrender and unconscious, reading for psyche advocates a literary experience of openness that draws the numinous message of a literary work to the reader such that she understands how her fear, anxiety, or her past negative experiences may limit her worldview, and that she may transcend these constructed boundaries.

Thus far, I have explored the relationship of the New Thought Movement, psychological experience, and literature to the themes of suggestion, surrender, and unconscious/subconscious. To illustrate how reading for psyche, as a reflection of New Thought themes, contributes to a conversion of perception and creates a healthy-minded view through literary engagement, I offer the example of Oprah’s Book Club, which encourages readers to “make the connection” with something beyond themselves in an effort to induce a personal transformation or Ah-ha! Moment.

Oprah’s Way of Reading: Making the Connection and the Ah-ha! Moment

            Within the context of Oprah’s Book Club, books are powerful tools for healing.[35] Kelley Penfield Lewis describes how Book Club members are encouraged to “read, identify with the text, testify to its impact, heal the[ir] original wound, empower themselves, and experience emotional or spiritual uplift.”[36] Oprah’s focus on the “experiential aspects of reading,” Lewis continues, establishes reading as an “enjoyable and therapeutic” activity[37] with “transformative” results.[38] Standing with an “otherworldly orientation,” according to Travis, Oprah’s Book Club approached books as “mystical objects” through which readers could divine the interconnectedness of the world.[39] The mystical nature of novels within the club lead to a form of what Travis calls “nonrational reading,” which stresses moving away from a purely intellectual understanding of a novel and towards a more emotional experience with the novel.[40] Nonrational reading suggests that reading a novel with “too-cerebral [an] analysis”[41] may impede the reader’s ability to experience the interconnectedness between herself and “the broader social world.”[42] As Farr describes, Oprah’s emphasis on connection underscores “feeling the significance of issues” contained within literature.[43]

Within Oprah’s hermeneutic, Travis identifies three distinct reading modes that propel Oprah’s Way of Reading: identification, openness, and transcendence.[44] The purpose of this three-tiered reading is to move a reader out of her limited social context into another setting to create empathy, dissolve the “perceived barriers separating readers from one another,” and establish a community of solidarity, or what Travis calls “an enchanted community.”[45]

The reading modes of identification, openness, and transcendence recall the three themes William James found within the Mind-Cure Movement of the early twentieth century, suggestion, surrender, and the unconscious. Travis describes the first reading mode of identification as a means of locating oneself within a novel, not in a narcissistic manner, but with a critical engagement that draws the reader into the text where she can see herself and her reading partners in the novel together. Through this active engagement, Travis explains, a reader opens to the broader world when she sees how her experience and another reader’s experience are “similarly structured by divisive social hierarchies.”[46] Oprah achieves this initial step towards openness by asking each reader in Book Club episodes “‘When did you think: ‘This is my story’?’“[47] This simple question reflects the challenge put to all Book Club members: to step into the same narrative and find their story, regardless of their ethnic, religious, or socio-economic backgrounds.

In relation to New Thought suggestion, Oprah’s reading with autobiographical reflection recognizes that ideas have power over behavior and belief, in that, when you see yourself as a separate entity you behave as though you have little to no connection with other women who come from different backgrounds. Once you find yourself and the reader sitting next to you within the same text, distinction and difference dissolve, and knowledge that you both walk in the same sphere of experience emerges. This recognition then leads to an empathic connection found in the second reading mode of openness.

Openness occurs when a reader expands her understanding of the world and extends that boundary to include other readers as well. Oprah herself enlarges these boundaries and creates solidarity among Book Club members by extrapolating the novel’s plot from its specific situation in a novel and universalizing its theme for the group.[48] For example, during the Cane River Book Club discussion, Oprah reshaped the novel’s plot of slavery into a theme of degradation,[49] and when talking about The Bluest Eye, Oprah shifted the discussion of beauty and African American women, to a conversation about women’s exercise of freedom and autonomy.[50] Oprah lays the groundwork for empathy when she asks Book Club participants to pinpoint the moment when they realized the novel was telling their story.[51] In New Thought terms, a reader surrenders herself to the novel’s message and to the realization that the social hierarchies women occupy may be artificial and exclusionary. Book Club discussions require readers to not only dissolve their personal boundaries, but to welcome others into their world to establish a new and larger community of empathy and support. Compensation through reading and discussing the novels establishes the conscious understanding that, regardless of ethnic, religious, socio-economic, or geographical limitations, a reader is not truly alone in her situation. In accordance with reading for psyche, this step of altering perception presents the most difficultly because it requires reevaluating and reshaping long-held patterns of thought in order to see oneself in relation to the universal themes Oprah extrapolates from literature.

Arriving at a place of commonality inspired by the novel under consideration brings book club members to the final transcendent reading mode, wherein readers perceive their “transcendent human sameness.” As Maya Angelou explained during the discussion of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,[52] through this awareness of human sameness, an individual realizes that when confronted with pain, the only way to end that pain is with love and kindness. Fighting pain with pain only creates more pain. Fighting pain with love and kindness creates a place where love and kindness can exist, grow, thrive, and end the cycle of pain altogether.[53] In New Thought terms, this transcendence corresponds to the entrance into and acceptance of the unconscious (or James’ subconscious), where a reader transcends the boundaries of dualism and realizes a unity within the psyche.[54] In Oprah’s language, this growth culminates in the Ah-ha! Moment; that instant a new awareness about yourself or the world hits you, when you understand something from a perspective you had not previously contemplated. Oprah’s A-ha! Moment reflects the cognitive and emotional experience of reaching into the hidden personality (or unconscious) and assimilating new unconscious information into consciousness, to restore a healthy and balanced psyche.

By reading reflectively, encouraging empathy, and directing readers toward their transcendent Ah-ha! Moment, Oprah refuses to let Book Club members turn away from challenging encounters and guides them through a literary “internalizing of experience” that aims to convert each reader’s self-perception. Oprah’s Way of Reading recalls the ultimate goals of New Thought, Jungian analytic psychology, and Martinez’s reading for psyche: creating reflective self-awareness, expanding an individual’s worldview, and transcending the dualistic perception of herself in the world.


            Compatibility between New Thought themes (suggestion, surrender, and unconscious) and the reading modes of Oprah’s Book Club (identification, openness, and transcendence) transforms the activity of reading fiction from a form of entertainment to a transcendent experience of self-awareness. In the context of Oprah’s Book Club, these themes create a community of solidarity and mutual care (i.e., empathy), which dissolves boundaries that prevent women from recognizing similarities between us. Through Oprah’s Book Club, suggestion, surrender, and unconscious free women from the limited boundaries society creates for us (and that we create for each other), empowering women to understand that our limited thoughts impede our participation in the world.

The June 2012 revival of Oprah’s Book Club in an online format as Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 (two years after the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show) demonstrates that Oprah’s Way of Reading resonates with women. Not only does Oprah’s Way of Reading contribute to an experience of self-realization, it influences women’s understanding of personal suffering and provides an opportunity to examine the obstacles we confront in life from a subjective position, within a community in which women may acknowledge and overcome suffering.

As Holmes emphasized in his discussion of Quimby’s New Thought beliefs, New Thought is a developed practice, which means that women may cultivate the skills necessary to live with a healthy-minded self-perception. As Quimby concluded, a human is what she thinks herself to be. Reading the novels of Oprah’s Book Club helps women tap into their hidden self-worth and exorcise thoughts or experiences that prevent us from manifesting this self-worth in our everyday life.



                [1] For example, The Phil Donahue Show, Geraldo, Sally Jesse Raphael, and The Jerry Springer Show.

                [2] Cecilia Konchar Farr, Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005) 8-9; 31.

                [3] Trysh Travis, “‘It Will Change the World If Everybody Reads This Book’: New Thought Religion in Oprah’s Book Club.” American Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 3 (September 2007): 1026.

                [4] Travis, “Change the World,” 1026.

                [5] Kathryn Lofton, “Reading Religiously: The Ritual Practices of Oprah’s Book Club” in The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, ed. Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008) 57-8.

                [6] Maria McGrath, “Spiritual Talk: The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Popularization of the New Age” in The Oprah Phenomenon, ed. Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2007) 131. At the same time, McGrath notes, other talk shows were making format changes to include more New Age programming; however shows such as Sally Jesse Raphael or The Montel Williams Show limited this to psychics who communicate with dead (132).

                [7] According to Farr, the mission of The Oprah Winfrey Show was “to engage social issues and inspire self-improvement…would naturally be tied to the books she loved–books with a similar aim” as her talk show (Reading Oprah 32).

                [8] Farr, Reading Oprah, 9.

                [9] Ibid., 3.

                [10] Simon Stow, “The Way We Read Now: Oprah Winfrey, Intellectuals, and Democracy” in The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, ed. Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 284. See also Kate Douglas, “Your Book Changed My Life: Everyday Literary Criticism and Oprah’s Book Club” in The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, ed. Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 242-3.

                [11] Travis, “Change the World,” 1030.

                [12] Ibid., 1022; See also Glenn R. Mosley, New Thought, Ancient Wisdom: The History and Future of the New Thought Movement (Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006) 44.

                [13] Travis, “Change the World,” 1021.

                [14] Ibid., 1023.

                [15] George Quimby, “Biography” in Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, The Complete Writings Volume I, ed. Ervin Seale (California: Devorss and Co., 1988) 20. According to Glenn R. Mosely, Quimby became interested in mind-cure following a bout with tuberculosis that modern medicine could not cure, a friend suggested he take up horseback riding to help. While physically unable to ride, Quimby settled for daily carriage rides, which had positive effects on Quimby’s recovery (New Thought, Ancient Wisdom, 46).

                [16] Mosley, New Thought, Ancient Wisdom, 45.

                [17] Ibid., 46. See Mosley 43-50 for further discussion of the founders of the New Thought Movement.

                [18] Phineas Parkhurst Quimby qtd in Steward W. Holmes “Phineas Parkhurst Quimby: Scientist of Transcendentalism” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Sep., 1944), 376. Italics in original.

                [19] Ibid., 371.

                [20] Ibid., 375.

                [21] William James, “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” in The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin, 1995) 96.

                [22] See Donald F. Duclow, “William James, Mind-Cure, and the Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 41, No. 1, Spring 2002, 50.

                [23] Ibid., 50.

                [24] Joseph Campbell ed., “Introduction” in The Portable Jung, trans. R. F. C. Hull. (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), xxvii. See also Edward F. Edinger, The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1984), 35.

                [25] C.G. Jung, Collected Works: Practice of Psychotherapy, trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 16 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), par. 99.

                [26] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd Edition, Vol. 7 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), par. 187.

                [27] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 400.

                [28] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), par. 487.

                [29] Jung, CW 8:582.

                [30] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 15 (Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1966), par. 133.

                [31] See Jung, CW 8:561-564.

                [32] Inez Martinez, “Interiority,” Art Journal  51, no. 2, Art and Ecology (Summer 1992): 57-9. According to Martinez, art stands alongside religion as a force powerful enough to cause us “to risk the solitary experience” that comes with self-reflection and introversion.

                [33] Inez Martinez, “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Slavery Haunting America,” Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies 4, no. 3 (2009): 6.

                [34]Ibid., 8. To successfully read for psyche Martinez suggests a three-step process. First, readers must pay attention to the contents of the text with the purpose of gaining something new during each reading. Second, readers must intentionally read texts for psyche by becoming sensitive to the numinous event(s) within the narrative. Third, readers must reflect on the text in light of their numinous experience of it (10-13).

                [35] Kelley Penfield Lewis, “The Trouble with Happy Endings: Conflicting Narratives in Oprah’s Book Club” in The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, ed. Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 216-17.

                [36] Ibid., 219.

                [37] Ibid., 216.

                [38] Ibid., Affect 220.

                [39] See Travis “Change the World” 1031-2.

                [40] Ibid., 1031.

                [41] Ibid.

                [42] Ibid.

                [43] Farr, Reading Oprah, 68.

                [44] Farr describes these as “reflective, empathic, and inspirational” reading modes (Reading Oprah, 50).  Lewis describes Oprah’s methodology of “self-empowerment through books” in similar terms: as a “process of reading, identification, confession (or testimony), and self-change followed by empowerment or uplift (“The Trouble with Happy Endings” in The Oprah Affect, 215).

                [45] Travis “Change the World” 1032.

                [46] Ibid., 1033. Kate Douglas calls this type of reading “autobiographical criticism” or “autobiographical self-reflexivity” (Douglas, “Your Book Changed My Life” in The Oprah Affect, 242-4).

                [47] Oprah Winfrey qtd in Lofton, “Reading Religiously” in The Oprah Affect, 62.

                [48] Ibid., 61-2.

                [49] See Lofton’s discussion of the Cane River Book Club talk (Ibid., 64).

                [50] See Mark Hall, “Oprah’s Book Selections: Teleliterature for The Oprah Winfrey Show” in The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, ed. Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 113.

                [51] Lofton, “Reading Religiously” in The Oprah Affect, 63.

                [52] Travis, “Change the World,” 1033.

                [53] Ibid., 1034.

                [54] Ibid., 1032.