Hitting the books

Peter Conn

Penn’s Peter Conn says consulting for Oprah’s Book Club is an opportunity to take his expertise to a “broader audience.”

As Board Chairman Emeritus of Pearl S. Buck International and author of the acclaimed book, “Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography” (Cambridge, 1996), Interim Provost Peter Conn is the natural person to ask about Buck and her work.

Apparently, Oprah Winfrey thinks so, too. Conn, who is also the Andrea Mitchell Term Professor of English, is acting as principal literary consultant to “Oprah’s Book Club”as the TV magnate and her viewers read the Buck classic, “The Good Earth.”

As a consultant, Conn says the club sends him a small sampling of questions—picked from the hundreds submitted by readers. While many of the questions are related to character, plot and language, “this book has attracted quite a lot of what might be called ‘cultural interest,’” says Conn. In the most recent set of questions, Conn discussed why the story was told from a male perspective, how a woman’s feet were bound in China (where the narrative takes place) and why men were allowed to have multiple wives.

The Good Earth

Conn also helped prepare some of the background material on Buck and “The Good Earth” when the club’s web site launched in September.

Conn is no stranger to consulting, having served as a literary consultant on numerous other projects, including “The American Short Story” series, a TV adaptation of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” video documentary specials on John Dos Passos and Buck and theatrical productions for the People’s Light Theatre Company.

He’s also not the first Penn expert to field questions for Oprah’s Book Club. Rita Barnard, associate professor of English and Comparative Literature and director of the Women’s Studies Program, was asked last year to serve in that role for the book, “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton. “I was the first academic they had approached for the Q & A feature, and they were trying to decide if and how they could work with literary academics and vice versa,” writes Barnard in a recent essay called “Oprah’s Paton, or South Africa and the Globalizations of Suffering,” for the journal, English in Africa. “I resolved that I would answer the questions respectfully, to try to see the question behind the question, if need be, but that I would also be frank about my own take on Paton’s novel. …From the point of view of a small cog in a machine, as I saw myself, it was a perfectly pleasant pedagogical job.” Conn says he’s enjoyed his experience. “It’s an opportunity to take one’s scholarly materials and share them with a broader audience. I think Oprah has done more to promote reading in this country over the last few years than literally anybody else.” At a time when, Conn says, studies indicate that fewer and fewer people are reading less and less, “I think what she’s doing is indispensable.”

To read Conn and Barnard’s comments, visit Oprah’s Book Club web site: www2.oprah.com/obc_classic/obc_main.jhtml.

Originally published on December 9, 2004