Oprah introduces Faulkner

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Southeast Missouri State University professor Robert Hamblin leads a discussion for Winfrey's book club.

Few people have summer reading lists that include the classics by Melville or Hawthorne, but when popular talk-show host Oprah Winfrey suggests a book, people listen.

So last Friday, Winfrey suggested her viewers begin a summer of Faulkner. As part of the reading program, viewers also can hear from professors and scholars about author Robert Faulkner and the themes in his works.

One of those scholars leading discussions is from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.

Dr. Robert Hamblin, head of the university's Center for Faulkner Studies, is leading the first few online discussions of the books. He posts a new discussion topic each Monday and wrote an introductory essay offering tips on how to read Faulkner.

Hamblin went to Chicago last month to videotape the lectures, which are really like five or 10-minute conversations about the book, he says.

As a literature professor, Hamblin is thrilled to see that Oprah has begun offering classic novels as part of her book club. "We've been hearing in Faulkner circles that she was going to suggest a book, but we had no idea that she would do three."

Winfrey picked three novels as part of her book club listing: "As I Lay Dying," "The Sound and the Fury," and "Light in August." Her Web site offers a calendar format for reading the books and plenty of information about Faulkner and his work.

As is prone to happen when Winfrey suggests a book, copies begin flying off library and bookstore shelves. By the weekend, Faulkner novels had risen to the No. 2 best seller for the week. A boxed set of the three novels sold 500,000 copies.

"Faulkner never sold that many books in his lifetime," Hamblin said. "If Oprah had been around then, he might not have spent most of his life in poverty."

Faulkner's books are often difficult to understand for first-time readers, so Hamblin is excited about the chance to discuss the books with new readers.

Even his daughter, who hasn't read a Faulkner novel, is taking part in the Oprah book club, he said. "She called and said she's halfway through the book."

Hamblin said Winfrey's list didn't include one of his favorite novels, but then every Faulkner scholar has a different view on which is the author's best work.

"I chided them for not including 'Absalom Absalom,'" he said. "But that could be his most difficult novel. I think they've made fine selections." He also thinks "Long Hot Summer" would have been a good choice.

For each book, Winfrey has devised a reading plan to break the novel into segments. Her Web site offers resources on other Faulkner titles and even a Faulkner quiz.

The difficulty in leading the online discussions, Hamblin said, is in not giving away the details of the book for readers who have yet to finish it. "When I teach a novel, I assume everyone's already read the book, so I can't give away part of the next lesson."

But he viewed the online lectures more like the poetry he writes, where every word counts and extraneous information has to be deleted. He tried to keep his conversations to a single topic that would help readers with the next segment of the book.

He hopes the online discussions add another dimension to Faulkner and spark an interest for new readers. "They can complement one another," he said.

And that's exactly what's happening in book clubs around the country, where people gather, either in person or online, to discuss the materials they're reading.

Some surveys suggest that as many as 5 million people, many of them women, are part of book clubs.

Pauline Hubert, founder of Bookmovements.com, a Web site that links authors and people to book clubs, said these readers have tremendous buying power and influence.

Book clubs have created best sellers like the "Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and "The Red Tent" simply through word of mouth.

She says the groups started as friends getting together, but found that it is important to discuss context and characters when reading.

It gives people a chance "to learn more about the story and each other than if they had read the book alone. Oprah and others opened the door, but now people are doing it on their own," she said.

Part of Hubert's mission was to bring the online groups together and give them information about the book that they might not have. She offers some suggestions for how to get a book club going:

* Invite the right people. You need people who will actually read the books.

* Figure out the details about how often the group will meet and who will be its leader.

* Be serious but have fun. Book clubs mix intellectual people and those with general interests for a lively discussion. Too much of either will spoil the group.

* Select the right books. This can be tough, but go for books that have three-dimensional characters who explore human thoughts or make hard decisions.

* Learn to read to discuss. Mark pages as you read and think of questions that can spark an in-depth conversation. Identify themes or symbols used in the book.

* Lead an effective discussion by offering open-ended questions. Ask each member to come to the group with one question.

* Read into characters. Instead of just reading a novel and appreciating characters, examine how you'd relate to this person.

Hamblin is hopeful that the talk show host's power to promote will bring new readers to Faulkner and to reading.

"There's some envy that Oprah has done more to promote reading than any other teacher or university professor" ever did, Hamblin said.

At least this summer, Hamblin and other professors get to join in the fun.


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