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Oprah updates her book club

Times Staff Writer

Good news for contemporary writers: Oprah’s back in your corner.

After two years of dipping into literary classics for her monthly Oprah’s Book Club, the television talk-show host -- and literary kingmaker -- selected James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” on Thursday as her September read.

In the 2003 book, Frey recounts in spare, graphic detail his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, a theme of survival that would seem to be vintage “Oprah.” But Winfrey’s prior book club reads have been almost exclusively fiction, so Frey’s selection heralds a return to contemporary writers as well as an expansion of possible titles to include nonfiction.

“I feel this will give the book club a whole new range of opportunities to explore the world through words,” Winfrey said Thursday.

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Winfrey began the club in 1996 but suspended it in 2002 saying she felt it had “become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share.” Winfrey revived the club the next year, but announced that she intended to bring readers to the classics.

For writers, getting the Oprah stamp of approval is like hitting the lottery. Frey’s book jumped to the No. 1 spot on Amazon.com on Friday, topping J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” as paperback publisher Anchor reportedly ordered 600,000 more copies. The sudden interest hasn’t yet spilled over to Frey’s sequel, “My Friend Leonard,” published in June, about his life beginning where “A Million Little Pieces” ends. It was at No. 35 midday Friday.

Winfrey described “A Million Little Pieces” to her audience as “a radical departure” in her selections, and that she stayed up late two nights in a row to finish reading it.

“It’s taking us right to the edge,” Winfrey said, according to a transcript of the show. “It’s a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it’s so real. It’s a wild ride through addiction and rehab that has been called electrifying, intense, mesmerizing and even gruesome.”

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Living writers aren’t the only ones to benefit. When Winfrey in June tapped a boxed set of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” “The Sound and the Fury” and “Light in August,” it too skyrocketed up the Amazon sales chart, topping out at No. 2 just behind advance sales for the Potter book, which came out in July.

Winfrey’s book club, which has been credited with sparking fresh interest in book reading groups, has taken a few knocks too. Jonathan Franzen famously declined the honor for his “The Corrections” fearing its effect on his literary reputation, illustrating the class divide between literary authors and the mass market.

And last spring more than 100 writers petitioned Winfrey to leave the past and focus on the present, a blatant acknowledgment of Winfrey’s influence on sales, and the writers’ careers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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