Oprah's recommended reading becomes the talk of all America

Rupert Cornwell on the Queen of Chat who has given literature a lift
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In the annals of the dissemination of human culture, it may not quite rival the discovery of papyrus, the invention of offset printing, or the launch of the Internet. But Oprah Winfrey, queen of television talk shows, has launched a book club, and the US publishing industry has never seen anything like it.

America's obsession with celebrity always amazes, but rarely as much as now. This is not, to put it mildly, a nation of voracious readers - or at least it wasn't until Ms Winfrey announced in September that, once a month, her regular weekday afternoon show would contain a half hour `Book Club' segment "to get America reading again", complete with featured author. For Oprah-followers, it was as good as the Eleventh Commandment.

Now appearances by authors on chat shows are a routine - indeed essential - part of a book's promotion, and not only in the US. The current super- specimen here is Sarah Ferguson, dubbed by one American newspaper the "Duchess of Pork", who in recent days has appeared on Oprah, Larry King and seemingly every other show from Boston to Honolulu, to push her autobiography My Story. If a writer can get on Oprah, said one publishing company even before the advent of the Book Club, "you don't need reviews."

For pure publishing pork, though, nothing matches the featured selection on Oprah's Book Club. The first choice was a decently written but largely unremarkable novel about a kidnapped child, The Deep End of the Ocean, by the debutante author Jacqueline Mitchard. The publishers initially planned a print run of 100,000.

Then came 18 October and benediction by Oprah. Since then the print run has been raised to 800,000 and The Deep End stands today on top of the New York Times bestseller list, having vaulted over such superstars as Tom Clancy, Stephen King, John Le Carre and Dick Francis. And to prove it was no fluke, Oprah has done it again with her second selection, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.

Song of Solomon, as students of modern American writing will know, is anything but lowbrow supermarket pulp. It is an exquisite, mystical tale of a black man's discovery of his African-American roots. Largely on the strength of it, Ms Morrison three years ago won the Nobel prize for literature. The book was first published in 1977, and before this month some 400,000 hardback and paperback copies had been printed.

That all changed with the Book Club endorsement of "the greatest living American author, male or female, black or white," as Oprah told her 9 million regular viewers. Forewarned, the paperback publisher rushed out another 580,000 copies and Knopf, which has the hardback rights, printed 40,000. In other words, the trade reckons to sell half as many books again in a couple of months as in nearly 20 years - thanks to the puffing power of a mega-celebrity.

The Book Club format is a small masterpiece of celebrity journalism: a potted biography of the subject, followed by filmed excerpts of a candle- lit dinner at Oprah's apartment with the author and four selected viewers as guests, rounded off by an on-set interview. She does not play the artsy critic, but the gushing advocate of reading for reading's sake. So has Oprah found the magic formula to transform a nation of couch potatoes into a mighty army of bookworms? Perhaps, although proof conclusive will not come until a Winfrey-blessed Oresteian Trilogy by Aeschylus - around for 2,500 years - surges to No 1 on the Times list. What she has already demonstrated however, for the umpteenth time, is the colossal power of celebrity TV in a land where talk-show prattlers are more famous than the Presidents they interview.

In the meantime, the book world trembles in anticipation at the third monthly selection, to be shown in early January. It is The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, a prizewinning 1988 novel that has sold 8,000 in hardback. Now the hardback publishers are rushing out 50,000 copies, and the paperback publishers half a million.

If the good Duchess could get on the Book Club, she might even be able to pay her debts.