I AM A MEMBER OF the Oprah Book Club, though perhaps not in good standing, having once complained in print that while Oprah Winfrey was certainly a great lover of books, she was no lover of great books.
A couple of years and one major showdown with Jonathan Franzen later, the big O chucked her monthly routine of showcasing mediocre new fiction for a reading commitment that is both looser and more respectable: one classic author about once a year. The result has been a run of books to warm the heart of high school English teachers everywhere: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Good Earth, East of Eden, Anna Karenina.
As if those weren't respectable enough, this summer Oprah chose a three-pack of William Faulkner novels: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August. The public response was largely appreciative. Writing in the Nation, J.M. Tyree called the selection "nothing less than a sneak attack on the whole idea of beach reading--and of the intelligentsia's perception of [Oprah] as the Queen of Midcult." Indeed, Oprah's choice of Faulkner, America's most celebrated modernist, seemed well calculated to contradict the idea of her book club as little more than an unwelcome reminder that Anna Quindlen also writes novels.
But before the reformed Oprah Book Club is toasted as the best thing since the Penguin Classic paperback, let's consider Oprah's "Summer of Faulkner" as a reading experience.
I'll use As I Lay Dying as the example because I've read the other two and could not approach them with the same freshness of perspective my fellow club members bring to the task.
By page two, I am already struggling with the dense imagery as a character walking along a row of crops comes to a cottonhouse. He steps through a window and crosses the floor in four strides "with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the opposite window." Ah yes: This guy enters a cottonhouse through the window, like a cigar-store Indian, but one in overalls who can also walk (and/or possibly have children because he is "endued with life from the hips down"), then he exits through another window.
Small house. Big legs. Open windows. Got it. Going over Faulkner's sentences only takes about 10 minutes each.
Fortunately, help is available on the book club website, where Faulkner scholars give brief, very general, lectures, and write answers (sometimes helpful) to readers' questions. The As I Lay Dying expert Robert Hamblin, director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University, says that I, the reader, should be patient. He suggests I think of the book as a mystery with me as the detective. Or as a jury trial with me as the jury. "Or, better, think of Faulkner's novels as symphonic in structure," writes Hamblin.
Whichever it is, it's a lot of work. One hundred and fifty pages in, I suddenly know what's going on. You have this family of crazy hillbillies who are carrying their dead mother in a homemade coffin to bury her in the town where she was born--her parting wish having been, Get me the hell out of here. Along the way, hijinks ensue. Rain comes and washes out a bridge. The caravan tries to go straight across the stream and the wagon capsizes. One of the brothers breaks his leg in the process, so to carry him, he is strapped atop the coffin so they can continue the journey. Meanwhile, buzzards are following the pungent scent of carrion and the sight of wounded flesh, which incidentally is quickly growing gangrenous because the one with the broken leg doesn't want to delay the caravan by seeking medical treatment. The videobox version might read: A bunch of retards who can't do anything right come near to destroying themselves and others to satisfy the only noble impulse they've had in years.
"Symphonic!" raves Robert Hamblin.
The website and the message boards allow readers to air their private theories and ask what in the world is going on. Literary discussion is often delayed by conversations about travel and family and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Readers can make use of a glossary for Faulkner's funny spellings ("chillen"=children, "rutting: to have a strong sexual impulse at the reproductive period") and learn from Professor Hamblin how to say Yoknapatawpha, the name of the (fictional) county where Faulkner sets most of his novels. (I just call it Youcantpronouncethe County.) The pedagogical method is to assume that the reader knows nothing.
What's most striking about Oprah's choice of Faulkner is rarely mentioned: how radically Faulkner diverges from the self-congratulatory spirit at the heart of the Oprah philosophy. The family in As I Lay Dying, the Bundrens, are low beings, barely civilized, suffocating burdens to themselves and others, eking out a hard life from the land. They are victims of circumstance--but predators, too. Chained to their awful fates by family and history, they lack the sweet and divine spark of self-creation that's at the fingertips of every human being, according to Oprah's many statements on the subject.
"The reason for living," according to Addie Bundren, whose corpse is the one being transported, is "to get ready to stay dead for a long time." For Oprah, life's great aim is to be your most amazing, beautiful, and beloved self.
Yet what brings Oprah to Faulkner is clearly related to this very divide. Her critics say she's not literary? That she's not deep? Well, she'll show them. She'll read the hardest, greatest, novels around, ones fraught with Major Issues like Race and Tragedy and Violence. They'll never call her a lightweight again. Of course, this is classic A-student behavior, in which all intellectual work becomes a project in search of extra credit, while the true lover of literature quietly works at the feet of masters, never imagining that if he just sets his mind to Faulkner for a summer, he'll have been there and done that.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.