behold the dreamers
Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue

Remember when James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces became a bestseller? No? How about when a guy went on Oprah in 2006 to defend a book that was originally touted as a memoir but later discovered to include multiple fabrications and embellishments? Yup, you totally remember that. Tuning in to watch Oprah ask a sniveling writer if he had blatantly lied to her was good television!

For the most part, I’m a fan of Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiastic embrace of reading. People are generally followers; I’d rather have a popular and charismatic person encourage reading than, say, frivolous spending on unnecessary indulgences. (Waaaaait a minute. What’s this about those ratings-busting “Favorite Things” episodes on Oprah?) I estimate that I’ve read about a third of Oprah’s selections since starting her “club” in 1996 – some because she launched them to popularity (The Midwives by Chris Bohjalian, for instance) and some because, well, Americans should read them if they have an interest in American literary history. (To Kill a Mockingbird or East of Eden.)

One of Oprah’s most recent picks is Behold the Dreamers, a 400-plus page saga set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis. A debut novelist, Imbolo Mbue is a native of Cameroon just like Behold’s protagonists, Jende and Neni Jonga. After receiving the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2017, Behold the Dreamers reached New York Times bestseller status in July of last year – no doubt as a result of Oprah’s magic touch. I had heard so much about this book – including Mbue’s amazing seven-figure deal with Random House – that it seemed silly to not to have read it, especially since the topic of migration is one that I think about a lot.

I feel a little funny sharing that I don’t like this book because everyone else does.

The verdict: I didn’t think it was good. (How dare I?) Behold the Dreamers was full of caricatures and poor writing, yet to my surprise, I had a hard time finding any review – personal or in a publication – that had anything negative to say. I found a few comments on Amazon that made me relieved that I was not completely alone in my opinion, including “I thought the writing was amateurish,” “disappointingly clichéd,” and the best one: “There’s nothing heroic or interesting about these characters. They are just idiots and stereotypes and they succeed and fail without much fanfare. This book might feel like an important book especially now, but it’s really just a dull little affair that should have been a political speech instead of a novel.” (I have not included the Amazon reviewer who gave the book one star but then wrote, “I liked it a lot.” If there’s ever a perfect call for not basing your opinion on others’ half-baked thoughts…)

Let me put it this way: I couldn’t stop picturing Clark Edwards, big-wig investment banker, as Walter Hobbs in the movie Elf. And a younger Owen Wilson would be a good casting fit for Clark’s stereotypically anti-capitalist son, Vince. Also, why was the youngest Edwards son named Mighty? This Upper East Side family doesn’t seem like the type who would bestow quirky nicknames on each other – why don’t any reviewers think this is an odd and completely idiosyncratic device? Cue me as the symbolic wallflower looking over at everyone breathlessly discussing Behold the Dreamers. However, like some wallflowers, I suspect, they’d rather not be at the dance anyway because it looks kind of lame.

Yup, that’s a good book club discussion topic.

To be honest, I loved the topic of Behold the Dreamers – the exploration of “dreams” from the vantage point of a Cameroonian family in the US without papers and a stereotypical Park Avenue family wilting under the pressure of Lehman Brothers’ collapse. This is a great book for a current events class as it can serve as a starting point for discussion about migration, what constitutes an “American,” the different ways that “dreams” manifest themselves to people, and the desperate reality facing migrants who want to stay in the United States. At no point did I want to give up on the story; it just felt like a telenovela in print. (Therefore, I’m adding it to my kids’ summer reading list.)

But is a good story – and the external accolades that a story receives – the only “point” of literature? How do we measure a book’s worth? Here are two reasons why a resurgence in “reading” might really just be a way to bolster the publishing industry:

Reason Number 1: In “What’s Missing from Oprah’s Book Club 2.0,” a 2012 article in The Atlantic, Sarah Fay writes: “Why are celebrity book clubs and civic read-alongs good at driving sales but bad at promoting reading? Perhaps because they don’t do a good job of showing their members how to read. Other studies show that although Oprah’s Book Club makes readers aware of titles and authors they might not otherwise have heard of, it offers little opportunity to actually read and engage. Celebrity-endorsed book clubs don’t actually teach people to make time for and privilege reading within a culture that seems to value speed, visual stimulation, and activity. They endorse ‘books’ more than they do actual reading.”

Reason Number 2: In Issue 3 of n+1 Magazine, the editors write about “The Reading Crisis” and how the publishing industry has “reorganized itself on the Hollywood model”: “…the bookstore becomes a permanent tradeshow, with banners, musical distractions, and bestseller lists, and the exhausted author propped up like a Spider Man cutout at the ‘new releases’ table.”

There’s reading for context and content – we do that to expand our minds, i.e. our viewpoints. But there’s also reading for complexity – we do that to expand our actual brains.

Which is more difficult? Reading a book or a Scrabble game?

Not all authors are going to sign million-dollar book deals (for their first novels, no less). In fact, check out this article in The Irish Times about award-winning author Donal Ryan and his return to his civil service job as a stable way to ensure that he can pay his mortgage. Here’s what Ryan has to say:

“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer…You need to have something else on the go. You could take a chance and scrape a living through bursaries and writing books, but I’d get too stressed out. It just isn’t worth it. I have two kids in school and I have a mortgage to pay…I reckon I get about 40c per book. So I would need to sell a huge amount of books to make a good salary out of that. I can’t complain. My publishers are fantastic. I have just signed a contract for three more books and my advances are really good but, still, I have to look at the long term and the fact that I have 20 more years of a mortgage, so you would need to sell a lot to earn a living from that alone.”

I’ve read three of Donal Ryan’s books and one of Imbolo Mbue’s (her only, in fact). Sorry, but his are better. What does that say about what publishers are going for? As a society, we overwhelmingly care more about “reading” as sport and entertainment than as an intellectual pursuit.

This past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine profiled Australian author Gerald Murnane, a contender for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. (“Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?“) J.M. Coetzee (himself a winner of the Nobel) describes Murnane’s “chiseled sentences,” and the author of the NYT piece notes, “Murnane once described himself as a ‘technical writer’ – meaning, he explained, that in his depictions of ‘the mental imagery that is my only available subject-matter,’ he strove for rigor and precision of a white paper. (He often refers to his stories as reports.)”

Deciphering complicated language is a different — and harder — skill than sitting back and enjoying a whiz-bang tale. Yet our culture rewards the latter. Yes, the Nobel Prize in Literature (approximately $1million USD) exists for standout writers, but what about all the Donal Ryans out there?

As for Oprah, she is, in fact, doing something good for her legions of fans. Reading > surfing the web > twiddling our thumbs doing nothing. But you know what’s better than reading something because it’s popular? Reading something that causes us to take notes, perhaps consult a dictionary, and make us actually work for the reward.

oprah time
Honestly, no hate for you, Oprah. My daughter napped on me every afternoon at 4 while I tuned in. By my best estimate, I’ve read at least a third of your book picks…but pick something more complex next time!

— Related:

The More We Read Together, Together, Together,” a post on community read-alouds, book clubs, and Ian McEwan’s The Children Act.

The List” from the blog A Year of Reading the World, one woman’s quest to read a book from all of the globe’s 196 independent countries.

50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers. Get going!

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