I Believe Julia Keller's Views on This Matter Are Not Sound

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Charles Dickens
  • Charles Dickens
On Sunday, Tribune cultural writer Julia Keller expressed reservations about how Oprah Winfrey runs her book club. Oprah's latest picks are Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, and Keller thinks they shouldn't be.

"I don't mind that Oprah sometimes picks classic novels by dead authors for her wonderful club," Keller writes, but "this time around" she admits to a "slight disappointment." Classics come "pre-approved." They've been "analyzed and lionized." They have even been "sanitized for our protection." (Well, at least Huckleberry Finn has.)

Keller points out that Oprah's last pick had been a new book, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. And now that, by sheer accident, she happens to be on the subject, she has views on Freedom that she might as well express. She tells us it's a novel "so wildly praised and little scrutinized, a novel that inspired such fanatical devotion based on so little actual achievement that it ought to run for president."

When I read that line my heart leaped with joy for Julia Keller. To think that she had such a wonderful line bottled up inside her, and if it had not been for the absolute happenstance that Freedom was Oprah's most recent book club pick and she was discussing Oprah's book club, why, she would never have had the opportunity to share it!

But now that she's on the subject, she might as well share at length. Freedom, she tells us, "has its moments, but it's far too long-winded, and the persistent snark tone finally becomes tiresome." She compares it unfavorably to Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point, a book she allows she's never read but picked up at random the other day and apparently thumbed through. "Right away, I was caught up in the magnificent prose, bewitched by the richness of Huxley's insights into human foibles, by his crisply conflicting descriptions of houses and people and love affairs, and by his wickedly sly sense of humor." Like Freedom, she tells us, it aspires "to define an era in terms of a few representative, comically self-conscious and tragically self-deluded characters — but contrary to Franzen's overwrought and bludgeoning style, Huxley does it with a few elegant twists of the verbal knife."

By this stage of her column, Keller had left Oprah's book club far behind, and I was beginning to wonder what her larger point would be. It turned out she was about to pose a fundamental question to herself: "So shouldn't I skip the future 'Freedoms' and stick with the precertified 'Point Counter Points?"

In other words, should she no longer bother reading popular best-sellers like Freedom that everyone is talking about, everyone is buying and reading, and some critics — though she apparently doesn't notice — are scrutinizing with a fine tooth comb, and stick to established classics that I'm going to guess 90 percent of the reading public, but to her delight not herself, has never heard of?

Her answer is no. "New books are always coming forward," she writes. "They're poured into the giant hopper of time. Most are forgotten, most end up ground into dust." But to give our lives a "rejuvenating jolt of danger," we should regularly take on these new novels. So "pick a book you've never heard of, a book about which the jury is still thrillingly out," she advises, though it isn't clear how you can do the first and know the second. At any rate, "if it ends up being a dud — and the odds, sadly, suggest that it will be — fear not: 'Great Expectations' will still be there."

It will still be there; yet what a shame it is when an Oprah Winfrey calls it to our attention and urges us to finally read it. Like other classics, it is a book we apparently should always aspire to but never actually sit down with, as it will not rejuvenate us the way the steady flow of contemporary duds will. So by all means read Freedom, godawful though it is.

If Julia Keller's intent was to skewer Oprah's book club, she not only failed to but lost track of her subject halfway through. But if her intent was to say what she wanted to say about Freedom and get it into print come hell or high water, she succeeded. A novel so irrationally adored it should run for president — that is a line that deserves to be noticed! And against a setting of verbal incoherence, it stands out all the more boldly.

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