NEW YORK -- Oprah Winfrey was sitting under an oak tree in California last summer, reading John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" and loving it, when she realized that just telling a few friends about it wouldn't do.
"I was literally halfway through 'East of Eden' and thought, 'Gee, I wish I had a book club again,"' Winfrey said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Chicago, shortly after announcing on her TV talk show that Steinbeck's novel was her first pick after a 14-month hiatus.
Winfrey had suspended her club in April 2002 because she didn't have enough time to keep up monthly selections. She revealed in February that she would be starting her picks again and focusing on older authors.
The Winfrey touch is apparently undiminished. "East of Eden" jumped to No. 14 on Amazon.com within hours of her announcement. Steinbeck's publisher, Penguin Group USA, has ordered a new printing of 600,000 for a book that usually sells 40,000-50,000 copies a year.
Winfrey acknowledged that "East of Eden" is a long way from the typical "Oprah" pick. Since founding her club in 1996, she has often highlighted sympathetic women characters, choosing such books as Jacquelyn Mitchard's "Deep End of the Ocean" and Toni Morrison's "Sula."
But novels rarely come as manly as Steinbeck's epic, biblically influenced story about rival brothers. The main female character, Cathy, is a ruthless prostitute of whom the author writes, "I believe there are monsters born in the world."
"The portrayal of women in the book is rather shockingly misogynistic by today's standards," said Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini. "There's always a problem with women in Steinbeck's books. He could only do the Madonna or the [filtered word]. He didn't have much middle ground."
Winfrey agreed that she was "put off" by Cathy but says that she couldn't stop reading. And Winfrey thinks women will love the book, if only to root against Cathy.
"She's a woman you love to hate," Winfrey said. "You can see right through her and it gives you a little sense of superiority because you can't believe the other characters don't see through her."
Winfrey said she wants to avoid the "self-imposed box" in which she found herself: the fewer expectations the better. She will not make monthly picks, but three to five choices a year. She will focus on authors of the past, but doesn't rule out living ones. And after first wanting to call her revived club "Traveling With the Classics," she settled for "Oprah's Book Club," just as it was called before.
"There are some who would argue that this ('East of Eden') is not really a 'classic' ... and I realized that that was a conversation that would come up over and over again," said Winfrey, who was vacationing in Santa Barbara, Calif., when she read the novel. "I just want to read great books without it becoming controversial."
Steinbeck worked for years on "East of Eden," a best seller when first published in 1952. But most critics regard it as contrived and awkward, beneath such Steinbeck standards as "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath."
Parini agreed that the novel is far from perfect, but called it a "magnificent failure" and praised it as "quite readable." Winfrey thinks "East of Eden" is a great way to get people interested in older books.
"It's not like Shakespeare, or even Faulkner; it's reader friendly," she said. "I wanted to lead people down this path without them thinking they're back in school. When you read something that's good and juicy and it's called literature, then you're not closed to the idea of it."
The revived book club means more good news for the publishing industry, which is already anticipating Saturday's debut of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."
In a segment filmed Monday and aired on Wednesday's show, Winfrey personally delivered boxes of "East of Eden" to Anderson's Bookshop in the Chicago suburb of Naperville. By midmorning Wednesday, 20 copies had been purchased off the shelves and 50 more ordered, said Doris Blechman, the assistant manager.
Blechman said that when the segment aired, the store's phones began to ring from people who wanted to order the book - simply on Winfrey's recommendation.
"When I said, 'Do you know what it is?' They said, 'No,"' Blechman recalled. "And when I said, 'Do you care?' They said, 'No."'
Associated Press writer Don Babwin contributed to this story.
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