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My Summer with Oprah: Wrap-Up

Over the course of the summer I revisited Oprah’s Book Club, in particular Oprah’s Way of Reading as a means of encountering the spiritual through the ordinary activity of reading and talking about books (fiction and memoir). This is a short and sweet wrap-up of this summer’s discussion, although by no means the end of the exploration.

 

I recently began a certificate in women’s studies. While being back in the classroom as a student is a bit of a drag, it was interesting to experience the graduate way of examining texts again: a way of deconstructing and pointing our problems in texts (or Martinez’s ego reading) as opposed to accepting the author’s voice as authentic, to finding yourself in the text, and to encountering the spiritual within the words on the page (Martinez’s ego reading). In other words: an experience of the intangible experience with the emotions within the narrative.

 

What we miss out when we ignore the intangible, the emotional, or the spiritual is a true and authentic experience not just of the text, and of the author as well. We escape a connection with another person, who we may never meet, but whose existence and experience in life has touched us. We need to remember to acknowledge that. This doesn’t mean that “academic style” reading is bad, it only means that we need to be aware that there is another way to read (and perhaps many other ways to read) and, especially, to connect with the text and its author.

 

Connection drives us, whether it comes through reading a touching memoir or moving novel and/or discussing that work with another person. Reading, particularly when considered through Oprah’s way can make the ordinary experience of reading an emotionally and spiritually significant event, one that inspires our daily lives, our relationship with ourselves, and our interpersonal life.

 

If I have any lesson to pass on from looking into Oprah’s Way of Reading, it is this: Be Open.

 

Be open to an encounter with whatever is beyond us as you read and speak about books. Be open to the idea that there is no up and down (i.e., heaven and earth) but a dual-level of experience where the spiritual seeks connection with humanity in the here-and-now. Be open to changing your perspective on an issue while reading a work of fiction. Be open to realizing you are others, and others are you.

 

Instead of judging others because they read what you might not deem “literary,” ask them what they find compelling about the work. Connect with them, share with them, and above all, remain open to inspiration in unlikeliest of places.

 

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My Summer with Oprah’s Book Club, VI: Oprah and the Academy

My previous post discussed the similarities between Oprah’s Way of Reading and a Jungian approach to reading fiction. Both share the view that literature transforms a reader, and contributes to the overall social experience of a reader (if the reader is paying attention). But, Oprah’s Book Club (OBC) has caught plenty of grief from mainstream critics (most notably, the academy) who diminish the importance of Oprah’s Book Club selections and how they are read.

 

How does Oprah’s way of reading differ from the way the academy says we’re supposed to read books? Cecilia Konchar Farr addresses The Academy v. Oprah question in her essay “Talking Readers” (in The Oprah Affect:Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Clubed. by Cecilia KoncharFarr and Jaime Harker [NY: State University of New York Press, 2008], 33-53).

 

Farr begins her discussion focusing on the conflict between cultural capital and what she calls McLiterature, the commodification of reading associated with Oprah’s Book Club. Farr noticed that people would put down Oprah’s Book Club selections, without knowing what books Winfrey had selected—merely because Oprah’s Book Club can’t have the same cultural capital (i.e., ranking of elite taste) as the critical/academic world. Of course, Farr notes that many of OBC’s book selections were judged “aesthetically excellent by academic standards” (36)—it was the books entrance into an arena of popular culture that brought them down.

 

In looking at the inclusion of American literature into the college classroom, Farr writes that “to bring novels more commonly into their courses of study, [professors] had to configure them as high status, as worthy of attention at elite institutions” (39). Along with these texts, professors also “brought the tools of textual analysis from classical texts in Latin or Greek and from poetry, essays, and scripture” (39). In other words, the academy legitimated certain works (i.e., American literary classics) and juxtaposed them with tools of literary criticism from cultures credited with a certain elite knowledge of literary and philosophical culture. Only those works read in those ways were (and are) acceptable.

 

According to Farr, the standards used to determine which works of fiction could and should be included in the academy were “hostile to the social aspects of novels” (39), an aspect that OBC and The Oprah Winfrey Show targeted specifically in its programming. Farr writes:

“the early days of the twentieth century were a good time for Herman Melville, for philosophical musing and dense poetic language that sold poorly, and a bad time for Harriet Beecher Stowe, for social engagement and uncomplicated narrative that sold phenomenally well. Poor Harriet was so economically successful that she never made it to college until the feminist critics brought her with them in the 1970s” (39-40).

 

The standards used to select academically worthwhile texts have been transferred into the ever present “List” of books that everyone who is anyone must read. The idea behind The List, Farr notes, is that in order to be included in the literary elite, a reader must have consumed these very specific works of fiction, a list compiled by a select few who determine cultural taste. As Farr observes, “What we choose to read […] is a learned (and thus predictable) behavior. How we were taught to read influences our choices.” Thus, what we read is not as much of an organic experience as we would believe: we follow the lists that tell us, for example, the Best 100 Books we should read…and we do read these texts, believing all the while that this is an act of self-determination when really it’s just imitation.

 

Farr discusses her experience of having her literature students create their own lists of books according to personal feelings on literary/cultural taste, and to rank the novels they read in class according to these standards. Farr notes that books granted high cultural capital often appear at the bottom of her students’ lists. She draws on Jonathan Frazen’s The Corrections as an example of this phenomenon, citing students’ complaint that they had trouble connecting with the characters as a reason the book ended up with a low ranking. According to Farr, Oprah understood this need and was able to tap into “what many professors and arbiters of taste in our culture have failed to grasp–that today’s world demands a different approach to books and to reading” (47). What Farr is fighting against in her discussion, she states, is the equation: popular + book = bad taste.

 

Oprah’s Book Club latches onto the idea that books spark conversations and connections with others, something the academy doesn’t typically touch on. Regardless, books have an inherent social function that cannot be driven out by the Taste Police. What readers want (herself and her students included), Farr claims, is for a novel to engage them. I don’t see what’s so bad about that?

 

In looking at this brief discussion of the place Oprah’s Book Club occupies in the Culture Wars, many reviewers of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild were very quick to dismiss the memoir as whiney and “self-absorbed”. I found reviewers on GoodReads.com particularly unforgiving of the book. Is this because of what we have been conditioned to expect from “memoirs”? That is, gut wrenching, physically dangerous situations that the individual was lucky to escape? There is none of that in Wild, the harrowing journey was emotional and psychological, and deal with growing through existential, not necessarily physical, pain.

 

Have these expectations come from The Lists thrust upon us as readers? If a memoir doesn’t meet X, Y, and Z criteria, then it cannot be part of the mainstream elite reading culture? This would explain why James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, exaggerated events in his book. (Frey and his book were on The Oprah Winfrey Show—twice. Once when Winfrey lauded the book, and the second time when Winfrey demanded to know why Frey fabricated the narrative to such an extent.) The book was billed as a memoir upon publication, but was later marketed as semi-fiction after the truth of the matter came out.

 

Oprah’s Way of Reading is drastically different from the accepted critical approach of literature. We are to be an objective observer of the novel, read it as commanded, and come to the conclusions we are told to arrive at—which interestingly enough, are written by the same people who create The Lists. So, we read what we are told, in the way that we are told, so that we believe an experience of the world that we are told. Sounds a little Big Brother to me. In contrast, what Winfrey asks is of her readers, is to find her/his own way into a novel, to assess how this particular story (no matter the author, characters, time period, social or geographical location) is YOUR story.

 

Why is this problematic?

 

Perhaps because finding yourself in a story gives you personal agency, or freedom, over your experience—you determine the outcome of the experience you have. And, frankly, personal freedom over your experience can be frightening…not for you, but for others who want to keep you in check. This is a particularly disturbing trend when it comes to the female experience, which is to be checked and limited most of all (even in American culture, where we see examples of the types of women deemed culturally acceptable on a daily basis).

 

Freedom of thought and freedom of experience are threatening—because they tend to limit the amount of control one group can have over another. Is this part of the jarring response that OBC received: the arbiters of literary taste were losing control to an actual and authentic experience of self-determination through a fictional narrative? Maybe, maybe not. It is disconcerting to know, though, that one form of reading is deemed low-brow because it encourages readers to tap into their personal experience, to come together with others and help each other rather than be lead by the experience of a critic you may never meet, and with whom you share nothing in common.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Started reading: 6/30/2014

Finished reading: 7/20/2014

 

Okay, so I FINALLY finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I don’t mean finally, I’m done with that book, I mean: oh my god, I’m so behind in my reading that I FINALLY DID IT!! It took me longer than usual, just because this summer is not a “devour books at every opportunity” summer (which makes me very sad, but that’s a post for another day). I did have trouble getting into the book, mainly because it deviates from my usual reading list. I typically balance my academic fare with a healthy diet of thrillers, mysteries, spy novels, historical fiction, “literary” fiction, and chick lit. I do read memoirs, but they are more of the humorous genre. Wild has isn’t absurd moments, but it is not humor.

 

PLOT:

Wild is about Cheryl Strayed’s three-month hike along the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) following a patch of life that was particularly rough: her mother died four years before her trek, she divorced her husband of six years, lost contact with her siblings and step-father, and generally self-destructed. The book flap describes the story as one in which a young woman is built back up after catastrophe.

 

Reading Journal

7/1

Started the book on Sunday. Was a little put off by the constant reminder that her mother died when she was 22. I got when she went through the discussion of her mother’s final days. It did feel a bit as though she was hitting it too hard–not sure if she wanted to feel sorry for her because she lost her mother or she was trying to convince herself that her self-destructive behavior and/or her decision to hike the PCT (without any hiking experience) was because of her mother’s death.

 

When I entered the book in my “currently-reading” shelf on Good Reads, I made the mistake of reading some of the reviews–most of which called the narrative “whiney” and annoying. I can see that, and I agree with them to a certain extent. Of course, this is also an example of the “ego reading” that Inez Martinez describes: you become angry at a text when it doesn’t deliver what you want it to deliver, or it doesn’t communicate things in the way you want them communicated.

 

One way to look at the so-called “whiney” narrative of Wild is to consider the description a textual dramatization of the confusion, pain, and chaos in the brain of a 22-year-old woman who lost her mother and struggled to keep a family together when she should have been enjoying her young adult life. The people who are supposed to teach us how to deal with problems in life are our parents, and when they are gone, to whom do you turn for advice? It’s also important to remember that the author was 22 when this happened. 22. At that age, the judgment/decision making part of the brain isn’t fully matured. Reading the text as a woman in her late 30s, it would be very easy for me to say: “Get your shit together, make better decisions, and stop being an idiot.” But that’s a view from someone who has had a decade+ more life experience AND who has a fully developed judgment center in my brain. Thinking back to when I was 22: I was an idiot. I would never want to be 22 again. If I lost my mother at that age, I don’t know what direction I would have gone in. I like to think that I would have been able to cope, but HOW I might have chosen to cope is another question. I also wasn’t married at 19 either (as Strayed was), so I don’t know how I would have handled that. I don’t think that divorce in the wake of a parent’s death is necessarily startling or uncommon. Death of a loved one places a heavy toll on a person. Overall, I think some of the reviews are too critical of Strayed because the readers may feel she isn’t living up to their expectations. Of course, I can’t ask them whether they tried to put themselves in to Strayed’s shoes via an Oprah’s Way of Reading/reading for psyche.

 

7/15

After getting past the whiney part, and trying to get into the Oprah mode, I thought: maybe this whininess is the point. Books create emotion and atmosphere through words, and word pictures. Something like TV or film has an easier time because they can create emotion using light, shadow, music, montages, etc. Strayed created the chaotic feelings and demonstrated the lost (“strayed”) feelings through this “whiney” narrative as it circled back upon itself numerous times. When in a state of complete chaos, when you’re trying to fight the chaos, this is precisely what happens. Or at least this is what happens with me, until the moment when you embrace that chaos, step into the chaos (as Strayed did when hiking the PCT), things begin to come together a little more. The narrative inside our mind becomes less circular, or at least the spirals elongate a bit so that while dealing with the past we remain more a part of the present.

 

7/22-25

I finished the book two days ago, and I have to say that I can’t readily leave the narrative behind. Whether that’s because I knew that I had to write about it on the blog or that the narrative resonated with me…I can’t say. It’s probably both. I did

 

Thinking about Oprah’s questions to book club readers, I started reading with “When did you know this was your story?” very present in my mind. The answer to this question: before I even started. This may actually account for my delayed reading of the book (in July instead of June as planned).

 

Why?

 

I am in the middle of my own trek through the mountains of the AJS (the Academic Job Search). A winding, difficult journey fraught with highs, lows, surprises, disappointments, satisfaction, and transition. While grad school can count as a traumatic experience unto itself, I would have to identify the abusive relationship I was in between 2004 and May 18, 2007 (the day I finally left, safely) as the starting point to my most recent life chapter. The relationship overlapped with the first year of my PhD program. This chapter culminated in my trek through grad school, and up the very windy, treacherous, and exhausting range of the Academic Job Search. I’m still sort of on that trek, but things have grown, developed and settled down into a different type of calmness and contentment than I had expected. I supposed I have reached my Bridge of the Gods (Strayed’s ending point on the PCT).

 

Grad school and my current career trajectory have functioned as a way to right myself after being shaken to-and-fro by a very chaotic three-year period. In that way, I can definitely relate to the “lost to found” theme of Wild. I’m found…for now, and I think that’s the best anyone can hope to say. We all get knocked off track, stagger, and have to right ourselves. Of course, we may not be able to find the proper footing. Strayed had her pick axe and then a ski pole for those moments when she needed help to find footing in the PCT. Looking at that idea allegorically: we all need someone or something stable to lean on in such situations.

 

THEMES OF NOTE:

One of the themes that I identified with most in the book was the theme of adaption. Life is always changing. What we plan from one moment to the next can change instantly—sometimes for the better, sometimes not. No matter what happens, we have to be ready to adapt to that new (and often unexpected) circumstance. Strayed dealt with her changes of situations calling for adaption, for example:

  • heavier-than-normal snow on the PCT, which caused her to bypass a section of the trail and extend her hike,
  • forgetting to pack a $20 bill in a resupply box, and having to make do with six cents for a while, and
  • buying the wrong size boots—and then losing one of them before she was able to get a new pair.

We can plan for almost every eventuality…all of the possibilities that we or other people have thought of. But being able to go with the flow, no matter how disappointing or painful the experience might be, will help us get through that difficulty.

 

I did watched the seven webisodes that went along with the OBC 2.0 reading schedule (see below) that offer 1-2 minute long video discussions on moments in the book. Two themes stuck out to me: change the narrative (webisode 2) and keep walking (webisode 4). You can also find segments of Strayed‘s appearance on OWN’s Super Soul Sunday, along with other information on Strayed and Wild.

 

Changing the narrative has to do with Strayed changing the view (and maybe even self-perception) that women don’t hike the PCT…alone. I think there’s a lot of that feeling out there, just substitute any activity out there for “hike the PCT” and you’ll find something that apparently people have decide women don’t do…alone. The idea that a woman can’t undertake a daunting journey, and she sure can’t do it alone, is beyond archaic. Yes, things are dangerous but why give up on getting the awesomeness of the experience because you’re a woman AND you’re alone? If we take a step back and look at how we’ve changed our own narrative and hopefully changed people’s view of what we (not just women, but all of us) are doing, I think we’ll find a moment where we’ve made a conscious decision: I am not defined by limits. I am not limited. If I believe the limit, then I am stuck. If I look beyond the limit, I am free. We all struggle against the narratives into which people stick us—and they may or may not represent the way we view ourselves.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to change your narrative—don’t let other narratives define yours.

 

Keep walking is a pretty strong theme throughout the book–not just in relation to Strayed’s literal hiking, but also in relation to her having to continue to move forward in life whether she was ready to or not. We do have choices when we meet hard moments in life, we can sit down and give up, or we can keep walking. There’s no guarantee that things will get easier if you chose to keep walking–we’ll still encounter challenges, but the difference at these later points is that the journey has strengthened us. We can use the earlier lessons to solve, or at least deal with, the challenges that come later. In the webisodes, Oprah mentioned the moments that would have sent her back, and ended her journey altogether. When she came upon moments where she thought about packing it in, Strayed just reaffirmed her mantra.

Lesson: Keep walking.

 

MY TAKE-AWAY:

For me, Wild is about not just about surviving personal trauma, but about surviving things in life that threaten to derail us.

 

We all have our personal struggles (and they all vary in length, intensity, and frequency) and a period in which we do what we can to remain functioning in the world. This time may qualify as a lost period–that doesn’t necessary mean you didn’t know what end was up, but maybe it was a period in which you were trying to find your footing as the After You.

 

There was the Before You, the person who existed before the momentous upheaval that shook your world. And then there is the After You, the you who is an entirely different person—same, yet changed in ways people can’t understand just by looking at you. You think that if you can get back to the person you were BEFORE the event, things will get back to normal. But what you have to come to grips with is: the Before You is gone. The Before and After Yous share the same body, the same interests, maybe the same friends, the same taste in music…many of the same things, but the way You are in the world, the way you look at yourself, the way you walk through the world…well, all that has changed.

 

Being “found” doesn’t mean you’ve gone back to being the Before You. It means that you’ve learned to occupy the life of After You with confidence and strength and certainty at a depth that even the Before You didn’t know existed. Before You was confident, strong, and certain…but the After You…well, After You has knowledge, experience, a back-story people can’t guess just by looking at you: you’ve been tested, you’ve been challenged, you’ve been opened, you’ve made it through. On one hand, you are more hardened, but on the other, that hardening has actually made you softer—more open, more forgiving (of yourself and others), more connected with others.

 

If I had to guess at what might connect me with other readers of Wild, it might be settling into life as the After You.

 

Kathryn Lofton mentions that the books selected for the televised version of Oprah’s Book Club are not stories that wrap up with a nice, happy ending. The narratives are often anti-climactic and don’t always leave the protagonist in a state of joy. I would say this extends to Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selections as well. This is not to say that Wild ended on a sad note. Quite the opposite: Strayed informs us that after she finished her hike, she met the man she would marry and that she has two children. She leaves out the difficulties those experiences had in their own right, but that isn’t the point. The point is: she finished one chapter of her life and moved on into the next. And, good things happened.

 

Happy endings are unsatisfying and false because they don’t complete the picture. If a story ends with the blissful union of two people who struggled to find one another, that’s great; but what happened AFTER that? By not providing the fairy-tale happy endings, OBC books tie us to REAL-LIFE. Our lives don’t end with a happy go-lucky-moment. Once we’ve achieved something grand, we still have to get up the next day and pay the bills. Wild brings that experience into focus a bit: the PCT was a chapter in Strayed’s life, one that led to new and different things. The message that we can take from this is, one event is the beginning of our next journey, which itself is the beginning of the next, and so on.

 

In other words:

Keep walking.

 

Post-Script:

Wild has been made into a feature film starring Reese Witherspoon. Release date: December 5, 2014.

My Summer with Oprah’s Book Club, V: What does Jung have to do with it?

My previous post on Oprah’s Book Club discussed three examples of Jungian literary criticism. This post aims to discuss what Oprah’s Way of Reading and a Jungian Way of Reading have in common.

 

Oprah’s way of reading emphasizes:

  1. identification with the text (or autobiographical reflection on the text),
  2. openness to the text (and what it has to offer you), and
  3. transcendence of the text and the creation of solidarity with others.

 

The point of reading in this way to become connected: to the narrative, to others through the narrative, and to yourself by virtue of participating in the narrative as analogous to your life. Oprah’s way of reading, first, aims to close distance between a reader and the text (to effectively remove the invisible boundary that separates the narrative’s action from your life). Second, Oprah’s way of reading aims to encourage the insertion of the reader into the narrative in such a way that it creates solidarity between all readers of the text (particularly women), in a way that might not have expected. Reading the Oprah’s way is, ultimately, reading with a purpose: reading while moving toward the goal of self-transformation. Or, to put it in Oprah’s language: reading while moving toward the “A-Ha! Moment.”

 

A Jungian method of reading emphasizes:

  1. personal engagement with the text (as a means of drawing the reader out of her/his isolated world and into a broader world)
  2. connection to past and future humanity through knowledge and experience of present suffering,
  3. healing the wounds that suffering (and living in general) inflict on the people who read literature.

 

Martinez’s Reading for Psyche seems to identify the purpose of a Jungian approach of reading most fittingly through the question: “What does my pain mean?” If life is suffering, and we all experience a form of trauma at one point or another, much of our time (if we are self-aware) may be spent trying to recover from that suffering. One way to do this is by approaching literature as a tool to help discover the purpose of our emotional pain and suffering. Only engagement with a literary text plus our courage to face the question of personal pain (rather than objectively separate yourself from your personal pain) can lead, or at least begin, the journey towards healing. The Jungian way of reading aims toward acceptance of pain, and the willingness to grow and change in light of pain, by examining your life through a lens that may bring more pain and suffering. This is the type of interiorization Martinez mentions, and the fact that it may come with heightened pain explains why many turn away from interiorization and look for external causes for our personal suffering.

 

Similarly, a Jungian method of reading (particularly Martinez’s reading for psyche) encourages merging with the narrative elements (i.e., symbols and archetypes) that speak to each reading on a personal (or autobiographical) plane. The archetype of the quest narrative may follow the same trajectory, but the obstacles that each reader meets throughout the journey will personify the people or situations that impeded (or currently impede) readers in their daily life. This first-person/autobiographical engagement will bring the reader into place for self-reflection (or self-awareness) that is not always comfortable and happy. Perhaps we do not want to face aspects of our daily lives, but through a Jungian reading, we must do precisely this. Books are not held at an objective distance and judged according to their ability to meet a set of criteria set upon the book, or according to their aesthetic sensibilities.

 

Commonalities between Oprah’s Way of Reading and a Jungian Way of Reading:

  1. Both value the reader’s personal engagement with the text that involves self-reflection how the narrative bears directly on the reader’s life.
  2. Both require openness to whatever the literary text has to offer in terms of lessons. These lessons may be gentle or they may smack us in the face with a personal truth we are afraid to admit.
  3. Both aim to connect the reader with the divine/the numinous universe beyond herself so as to make the reader aware that she is part of something much larger than herself.
  4. Both seek connection and solidarity between an individual reader and a collective group.
  5. Both see literature as a living participant in the reader’s life.
  6. Both aim for transcendent experience through which the reader gains self-knowledge and wisdom that is life transforming (more inwardly transformative than outwardly).

 

What is the point of this brief comparison between Oprah’s Way of Reading and a Jungian Way of Reading? Oprah’s way of approaching and reading literature is not new, or unique. It is built upon already established views of reading (of which Jungian literary criticism is one example), views which may be less favorable because they attend to the more emotive aspects of reading rather than to the aesthetic or intellectual experience.

 

 

My Summer With Oprah’s Book Club, IV: Reading for Psyche

My previous post provided an overview of Oprah’s way of reading. I discussed three modes of reading (as presented by Trish Travis):

  1. identification with the text (or autobiographical reflection on the text),
  2. openness to the text (and what it has to offer you), and
  3. transcendence of the text and the creation of solidarity with others.

While the overall sense coming from reading theories is that this type of reading is somehow incorrect or, at the very least, just not academic enough, I have yet to come across a piece on Oprah’s Book Club that examines Oprah’s way of reading in conjunction with psychological reading modes, specifically reading modes based on the analytic psychology of C.G. Jung.

 

The field of psychological literary criticism is broad, so I have selected three female literary critics for their notable contributions to the field of Jungian literary analysis:

 

Bettina Knapp:

According to Knapp, there are a variety of valid methods for studying literature (i.e., linguistic, psychological, historical, structuralist, semiotic, hermeneutic), and “each is meaningful if it deepens the understanding of the works under scrutiny and broadens the horizons of the scholar, critic, and reader.”[1]Compared to other literary methods, an archetypal analysis is a “unique approach” that removes readers from their “isolated worlds” and offers them a chance to broaden their view and to relate to issues confronting them more easily. The result is that readers experience their lives “as part of an ongoing and cyclical reality.” The purpose of Knapp’s analysis is to increase a reader’s self-awareness by expanding “the understanding of the individual’s function and role in society” and to transform reading from “an intellectual adventure” into “an excitingly helpful living experience.”[2]Knowing that people in the past “suffered from alienation and identity crises” helps contemporary readers who want to “understand their own gnawing feelings of aloneness.” Readers reflect on the “inner life of the characters […] as a living entity” and evaluate the work of literature “in terms of [their] own existential condition.”[3]

 

Susan Rowland:

Rowland’s use of Jungian literary theory represents an effort to reform its use in the context of literary analysis.[4] For Rowland literature, as an academic discipline, has become subject to reductionism in the face of literary theory.[5] Rowland advocates for the use of Jungian theory in literary interpretation because Jungian theory approaches literature holistically, as an autonomous entity, and reinstates aspects removed by traditional literary theory: “intuition, feeling, tacit knowledge, and aesthetic considerations.” Jungian literary theory, Rowland notes, also leaves room for the Other, be it “the other race, gender, space, nature, the sacred, or the other idea.” When we separate this other from literature and examine only what literature represents, we neglect literature’s inherent “social and psychic values,” which endow literature with its capacity to heal.[6]

Inez Martinez:

Martinez emphasizes the ability of creativity and art to induce “an internalizing of experience,” an experience from which we regularly turn away. Ignoring this internalizing experience consequently prevents us from asking an important question: “What does my pain mean?” Art helps us grapple with this question because art itself is the “fruit of interiority.”[7]In addition to sparking self-reflection in readers, literature attends to a society’s collective unconscious, which Martinez refers to as the cultural shadow.[8] Literature behaves like a mirror and reflects unconscious aspects of a culture so that society may recognize its dark side. This transformative power comes through the narrative’s ability to activate readers’ emotion.[9]Of course, a reader must read in a way that is open to an experience of these unconscious or shadow elements, which entails reading with an openness to experiencing something that challenges our beliefs and forces us to widen our perspectives. Martinez refers to this type of reading as “reading for psyche,” an alternate way of reading that opens a reader to the experience of the numinous within literature.[10] Creative literature engages emotion, therefore, to become receptive to an encounter with the numinous, a reader must loosen her or his preconceived boundaries and read for an experience of what the literature reveals, meaning, contents which might expose a reader to values to which she or he is opposed.[11]

 

As Bodkin demonstrates, reader response is a significant aspect of an archetypal literary work. The author shapes familiar symbols and archetypes within the confines of a narrative and the reader infuses these symbols and archetypes with meaning, which differs from reader to reader, based on her or his life experiences. Furthermore, an encounter with symbols and archetypes in literature can induce self-awareness and/or self-reflection according to Knapp and Martinez respectively, giving literature a compensatory function. In its compensatory capacity, literature becomes a source of truth and healing, which, because it contains elements of the Other, simultaneously connects us to the divine and the human. According to these recent Jungian approaches to literature, the reader’s job is to remain open to the experience of an encounter with this numinous aspect as it appearing in a novel. For Knapp, Rowland, and Martinez, literature remains an undervalued source of truth that needs to be taken seriously, especially as it compensates society through its reflection of what Martinez calls the “cultural shadow.”

 

So, what does this have to do with Oprah’s way of reading? That’s for next time.

 

___________

CITATIONS:

[1]Bettina L. Knapp, A Jungian Approach to Literature (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984) ix.

[2] Bettina L. Knapp, Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989),7-8.

[3]Knapp, A Jungian Approach to Literature, x-xiii.

[4]See: Susan Rowland, C.G. Jung and Literary Theory (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1999), 24.

[5]Susan Rowland, “Literature and the Shaman: Jung, Trauma Stories and New Origin Stories in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis,” Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies 5, no. 1 (2009): 1.

[6]Rowland, “Literature and the Shaman,” 2-3.

[7] Inez Martinez, ““Interiority,” Art Journal 51, no. 2, Art and Ecology (Summer 1992): 57-59.

[8] See: Inez Martinez, “‘Sonny’s Blues’ and Cultural Shadow,” Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies 3, no. 2 (2007): 1-8; Inez Martinez, “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Slavery Haunting America,” Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies 4, no. 3 (2009): 1-28.

[9] Martinez, “Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” 3.

[10] Inez Martinez, “Ego Readings vs. Reading for Psyche.” Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies 5, no. 2 (2009): 1-17.

[11]Martinez, “Ego Readings,” 6-8.

 

My Summer with Oprah’s Book Club, III: Oprah’s Way of Reading

My previous post offered a brief overview of how books are understood in the context of Oprah’s Book Club. This post provides a summary of to read books the Oprah way.

 

According to Kelley Penfield Lewis, 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.”[1] Oprah’s focus on the “experiential aspects of reading,” Lewis observes, helps establish reading as an “enjoyable and therapeutic” activity[2] that has “transformative” results.[3] Turned toward what Trish Travis calls an “otherworldly orientation,” Oprah’s Book Club approaches books as though they are “mystical objects” through which readers might divine the interconnectedness of the world.[4] The mystical nature of novels within the club creates what Travis describes as “nonrational reading,” a form of reading that stresses moving away from a purely intellectual understanding of a novel and moving towards a more emotional experience with the novel.[5] Nonrational reading suggests that reading a novel with “too-cerebral [an] analysis” may impede the reader’s ability to experience the interconnectedness between herself and “the broader social world.”[6] According to Farr, Oprah’s emphasis on this emotional connection underscores “feeling the significance of issues” contained within literature.[7]

 

Within Oprah’s hermeneutic, Travis identifies three distinct reading modes that propel what I call Oprah’s Way of Reading: identification, openness, and transcendence. 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 “perceived barriers separating readers from one another,” and establish a culture of solidarity, or what Travis calls “an enchanted community.”[8]

 

IDENTIFICATION:

Travis describes the first reading mode of identification as the locating of oneself in a novel’s narrative, not in a narcissistic sense, but in way 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 herself to the broader world when she sees the similarities between her experience and another reader’s experience despite “divisive social hierarchies” that try to separate people’s experiences accordingly.[9] Oprah achieves this initial step towards openness by asking each reader in Book Club episodes “When did you think: ‘This is my story?”[10] 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.

 

Oprah’s reading with autobiographical reflection recognizes that ideas have power over behavior and belief–when you see yourself as a separate entity you behave as though you are unconnected with other women, unless you share a common history and/or background. 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:

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.[11] For example, during the Cane River Book Club discussion, Oprah reshaped the novel’s plot of slavery into a theme of degradation,[12] 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.[13]

 

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.[14] 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. This step of altering perception (thanks to openness to what a text has to say) presents great difficultly because this openness requires reevaluating and reshaping long-held patterns of thought in order to see oneself in relation to the universal themes Oprah extrapolates from literature.

 

TRANSCENDENCE:

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 likeness. As Maya Angelou explained during the discussion of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,[15] through an awareness of human sameness, the 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.[16] 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.

____________

CITATIONS:

[1] Kelley Penfield Lewis, “The Trouble with Happy Endings: Conflicting Narratives in Oprah’s Book Club,” in Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, ed. Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker (Albany: State University of New York, 2008), 219.

[2] Lewis, Oprah Affect 216.

[3] Lewis, Oprah Affect 220. See also Hall in Oprah Affect 91.

[4] See: 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): 1031-2.

[5] Travis, “Change the World,” 1031.

[6] Travis, “Change the World,” 1031.

[7] Cecelia Konchar Farr, Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 68.

[8] Travis, “Change the World,” 1032.

[9]Travis, “Change the World,” 1033.

[10] Oprah qtd in Kathryn Lofton, “Reading Religiously: The Ritual Practices of Oprah’s Book Club,” in Oprah Affect 62.

[11] Lofton, “Reading Religiously,” 61-2.

[12] See Lofton’s discussion of the Cane River Book Club talk, “Reading Religiously,” 64.

[13] Mark Hall, “Oprah’s Book Selection: Teleliterature for The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in Oprah Affect, 113.

[14] Lofton, “Reading Religiously,” 63.

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

[16] Travis, “Change the World,” 1034.

 

My Summer With Oprah, II

My previous post briefly introduced Oprah’s Book Club as part of a content shift within The Oprah Winfrey Show from sensationalism to personal empowerment and social responsibility. This post offers a brief overview of Oprah’s view of books.

 

Reading was placed squarely within the new contextual format of The Oprah Winfrey Show as an activity that had social function. The Book Club itself developed as a means for continuing the message of personal empowerment and social responsibility as it became an arena for

understood to have a social function, and the Book Club became an arena for self-reflection, conflict resolution, and contemplation of social issues.[1] According to Oprah’s hermeneutic, books are powerful because they:

  1. provide healing,
  2. help readers gain self-awareness, and
  3. empower readers to share this self-awareness with the world. [2]

Not only did Oprah’s view of literature as a socially transformative medium inform how she read and encouraged others to read, this idea of reading as a transformative practice influenced the types of books selected for the Book Club.

 

Book Club selections share a theme of social justice, and although this underlying theme led some to label her book choices depressing,[3] according to Mark Hall, members of Oprah’s Book Club responded to these books with “feelings of hope and optimism.”[4] Critics decried her Book Club selections as predictable or bad, and Kate Douglas notes, referred to Oprah’s reading methods “condescending and uncultured.”[5] For example, Scott Stossel, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly magazine, wrote:

 

There is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving about the book club that it seems antithetical to discussions of serious literature. Literature should disturb the mind and derange the senses; it can be palliative, but it is not meant to be the easy, soothing one that Oprah would make it.[6]

 

Keeping Stossel’s comments in mind, here are some of the authors that made it into the Book Club ranks during its run on The Oprah Winfrey Show:

  • Jacquelyn Mitchard
  • John Steinbeck
  • William Faulkner
  • Toni Morrison
  • Lalita Tademy
  • Malika Oufkir
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • Isabel Allende
  • Janet Fitch
  • Bernhard Schlink
  • Anna Quindlen
  • Maya Angelou
  • Alice Hoffman
  • Sue Miller
  • Elie Wiesel
  • Gabriel Garciá Márques
  • Charles Dickens.

This brief list indicates that the Book Club selections span from popular novels to classics, and include authors that most of us have on our shelves, and authors many of us encountered in college literature classes.

 

What critics such as Stossel seem to neglect is that the type of books Oprah selects carry narratives about a variety of life experiences; for example, slavery, rape, domestic abuse, the Holocaust, the loss of a child, single-motherhood, broken families, and inter-racial relationships. If we really look at the Oprah’s Book Club books, we see that the Book Club selections are disturbing, although perhaps not in the manner Stossel would have liked or in the way Stossel expected.

 

Two things to keep in mind:

  1. The Book Club selections seem to approach topics of suffering in a way that recalls what Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz calls dangerous memory. Metz defines dangerous memory as a memory of suffering that disturbs our complacency in everyday life and jolts us into action.[7]
  2. Critics of Oprah’s Book Club may overlook the fact that men and women may experience novels differently, since, as Maura O’Neill notes, women communicate through the self-disclosure of emotional experiences.[8]

Dangerous memory plus women’s divergent communication style may lead to a different type of reading experience, on in which the therapeutic and self-improving narrative becomes disturbing and deranging.

 

For example, while reading Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue (about a woman who tries to escape an abusive marriage), more women might find the narrative disturbing and thought-provoking because they know a women who a had similar experience, they have been through this themselves, or they are living the experience as they read. This is not to suggest that men do not know women who have been abused or that male readers have never experienced abuse themselves. What I mean to highlight here is that the Book Club selections provoke discussion about trauma in the context of women’s everyday lives. This everyday aspect may be what Stossel (and critics like him) have a hard time with).

 

Academic reading implies a distance from a text and a sense of objectivity about its contents.[9] This type of reading removes emotion from texts and excludes the female perspective.[10] Oprah’s method of reading, on the other hand, injects the novel with subjectivity and, Cecelia Farr observes, asks readers to “consider how the book affects them emotionally.”[11] What Oprah asks a Book Club member to do is read with intent and with openness to emotional experiences she may have while reading, and to think about what the novel says to her about that suffering.

 

Next time: Reading the Oprah Way

__________

CITATIONS:

[1] Kate Douglas, “Your Book Changed My Life: Everyday Literary Criticism and Oprah’s Book Club,” in Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, ed. Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker (Albany: State University of New York, 2008) 241.

[2] Kelley Penfield Lewis, “The Trouble with Happy Endings: Conflicting Narratives in Oprah’s Book Club,” in Oprah Affect, 216-19.

[3] Cecelia Konchar Farr, Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 32.

[4] Mark Hall, “Oprah’s Book Selection: Teleliterature for The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in Oprah Affect, 116.

[5] Douglas, “Your Book Changed My Life,” 237-8.

[6] Stossel quoted in “How the ‘Oprah Effect’ changed publishing,” by Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY (May 22, 2011).

[7] Johan Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Towards a Practical Fundamental Theology (New York: Crossroad Books, 1980), 185-196.

[8] Maura O’Neill, “A Model of the Relationship between Religions Based on Feminist Theory,” in Inter-religious Models and Criteria ed. J. Kellenberger. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 42-9.

[9] Stow in Oprah Affect, 284.

[10] Douglas, “Your Book Changed My Life,” 246-7.

[11] Farr, Reading Oprah, 42.

 

My Summer with Oprah’s Book Club, I

The Oprah Winfrey Show first aired in 1986, with a sensationalistic format matching other daytime talk shows of the time, such as The Phil Donahue Show, Geraldo, Sally Jesse Raphael, and The Jerry Springer Show. In 1996, Oprah reshaped The Oprah Winfrey Show to focus on social responsibility and women’s empowerment.[1] The show’s new narrative became one of action, with segments encouraging viewers to do something, to “make the connection,” to change their lives.[2] Episodes offered advice, urged self-reflection, opened discussions about suffering, and encouraged life transformations.[3]

 

Along with format changes and a shift toward social responsibility and self-help, came Oprah’s Book Club (OBC), which introduced reading novels as a means of “making the connection” and changing women’s lives. Calling the announcement of her Book Club one of her “all-time favorite moments […] on television,” Oprah referred to books as her “friends” and declared her belief that books opened the world for readers.[4] Oprah’s inclusion of books alongside her show’s new emphasis on social engagement and self-improvement was natural.[5] Cecilia Farr notes that self-help books routinely dominate bestseller lists, which demonstrates that self-improvement “has always included reading good books.”[6]

 

A central criticism that routinely plagued OBC comes from the academy, which deemed Oprah’s way of reading incompatible with its own methodologies.[7] Regardless, overwhelming support of, and interest in, OBC demonstrates that the purpose behind the club, along with the prescribed way of reading, resonates with women. This resonance is evidenced in the reemergence of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 (OBC 2.0) in June 2012 on Oprah.com.

The purpose of this series of posts aims to:

  • Examine women’s mode of communication to see where OBC fits in,
  • Present criticism leveled at OBC,
  • Explore Oprah’s Way of Reading,
  • Discuss how OBC uses literature to empower women, help women confront traumatic experiences, and create a community of healing founded in literary discussion,
  • Present possible religious and psychological foundations of OBC, and
  • Evaluate Oprah’s three of OBC 2.0 selections made by Oprah herself exclusively for OBC 2.0: Wild (Cheryl Strayed), The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Ayana Mathis), and The Invention of Wings (Sue Monk Kidd)

 

I’m not sure what’s coming next, but stay tuned….

 

__________

CITATIONS:

[1] Cecelia 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.

[2] Kathryn Lofton, “Reading Religiously: The Ritual Practices of Oprah’s Book Club” in The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, ed.s Cecilia Konchar Farr and Jaime Harker (NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 55.

[3] Lofton, “Reading Religiously,” 57-8. Lofton equates this change with the inclusion of more “superhuman talk,” (i.e., talk about religion, church, and God) that gave The Oprah Winfrey Show a religious atmosphere.

[4] See http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Oprah-Announces-the-First-Book-Club-Selection-Video.

[5] According to Rooney, the mission of The Oprah Winfrey Show, “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).

[6] Farr, Reading Oprah, 3-9.

[7] Farr, Reading Oprah 9.

 

Summer Plans…

It’s hard to believe that it is already June! The semester ended almost three weeks ago, and I still feel like I’m going a mile a minute. Well, with a book to edit, an article to punch up for publication (forthcoming in 2015!!), a Hannibal article to finish, and a fiction project in the works…there isn’t much time left.

 

Yet somehow, I manage to find a way to squeeze in yet another project.

 

What I’m doing for my summer vacation is going back to Oprah’s Book Club. I started researching Oprah’s Book Club just after The Oprah Winfrey Show ended, and to my pleasant surprise, the Book Club returned in the summer of 2012 as Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 (or as I call it OBC 2.0). The Club offers tons of book selections, great reads for all sorts of moods and seasons. To date, there have been three official OBC 2.0–one for each year the rebooted club has been around. I bought the first book (Wild by Cheryl Strayed) in 2012, but as with may fiction books I purchase these days, the book ended up in what I affectionately call “The Pile.” This summer, I am delving into that pile to pull out that book, and will purchase the other two books Oprah selected and read them. I’m aiming for one a month. The idea is to share some of my work on OBC with you on the blog as I build up my project, and to share my thoughts and experience with the OBC 2.0 books. I’m particularly trying to read “The Oprah Way,” which I will illuminate for you over the next few months.

 

Here is my (proposed) reading schedule:

  • June: Wild by Cheryl Strayed (selected June 2012)
  • July: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (selected 2013)
  • August: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (selected 2014)

 

Let’s hope I can stick to it….

 

I’ll also be adding new things to my site, so stay tuned for some new categories and a new look. Don’t ask me when this is going to happen. But it will. Slowly.

 

And don’t worry: Hannibal Lecter is not gone. He’s just resting…he shall return.

 

A New Religious Movement of Reading? New Thought Religion & Reading for Psyche in Oprah’s Book Club

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.

Conclusion

            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.

 

NOTES

                [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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/361704. 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.

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