Like it or not, celebrities play a pivotal role in our society. Whether it’s to take a stand politically or to promote a controversial diet, there’s no doubt that they have an extensive influence on the way we live our lives and how we fill our time. Consequently, it’s no surprise that their impact reaches beyond our screens and into the books we read.
In 1996, the publishing industry saw a drastic shift in the way books were marketed to the world with the introduction of Oprah Winfrey’s book club. The program ran for 15 years and many of the books went on to become bestsellers, certain titles selling over 1 million copies. Since then, celebrities everywhere have joined the book club craze: Reese Witherspoon and Jimmy Fallon both have prominent clubs of their own, and the books they endorse have had similar successes.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the books celebrities enjoy and publicly support experience positive public feedback. What’s concerning is the fact that authors and books may suffer because of the individual tastes of the people directing what the public is reading. One economist pointed out that while Oprah favored certain classic books, the sales of genres like romance and mystery tended to suffer from her directed interests because the public was simply busy reading something else.
Balancing a book’s role as a product while remaining true to the art form is difficult, especially in a world where people are ever more distracted by their phones and the newest thing on television. While celebrities can often be the bridge between these two worlds, their constant advertisements pushing this or that book can change the way we perceive the text. The book becomes increasingly more like a product someone is trying to sell, instead of a piece of art meant to help us understand the world. And maybe it could be argued that books have always been products, that publishers have always been trying to push the sales of their new book, but celebrity endorsements seem to emphasize this point, rather than draw attention away from it. Often times, with their fans being such a reverent audience, their opinions become muddled with “expertise” and their recommendations with principles. Eventually, the books that are promoted lose the very individuality that made them appealing to the celebrities in the first place.
Creating a book club is an art in itself, a potential key to understanding a difficult text or cultivating relationships one might not otherwise make. But clubs on such a wide scale, like that of Oprah’s book club, take on a corporate quality and lose the intimacy that makes reading a book with a group of people so enjoyable. On a local level, Ann Arbor’s own Literati Bookstore runs a variety of book clubs that present an interesting understanding of the way a book acts as both a catalyst for relations and discussions while also remaining a lucrative product for the store. It’s a perfect marriage: The monthly clubs provide a platform for Literati to advertise their store and their books while the local atmosphere of the coffee shop preserves the personal connection between books and people, overall avoiding the downfalls that come with celebrity endorsements.
None of this is to say that celebrities are without their good intentions. They’ve changed the publishing landscape and the way we experience books — we can connect not only with each other but with our favorite stars through the books they read. Nevertheless, while the clubs are meant to encourage reading and can often have a positive impact on book sales, their prevalence marks a society that yearns to confirm the idea that “stars, they’re just like us.” We shouldn’t rely solely on Emma Roberts or Sarah Jessica Parker to tell us what books we should or should not read. Part of the experience of reading is browsing a bookstore or a library and stumbling on an up-and-coming author or an old classic that may or may not have a huge following. Even recommendations are integral to the process of finding a book — it’s when books undergo mass marketing, with the help of celebrities, that the real threat is evident. The process of reading is a personal experience and, if people continue to rely as heavily as they do on celebrities for book recommendations, books stand to lose the very thing that makes them marketable.