The Story of Oprah’s Book Club

Image: Oprah Winfrey interviewing Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again.

Oprah Winfrey began her love affair with books when she was a little girl living in rural Mississippi. Her grandmother, Hattie Mae, read to her from books her white employers gave to her. She taught Oprah to read and to memorize at a very young age. Some of Oprah’s fondest memories of childhood involve hiding away from the world with her nose buried in a book.

Unfortunately, one of Oprah’s most traumatic memories also involves her hiding away from the world with her nose buried in a book. Oprah’s mother did not share her love of books. In fact, she was angered by Oprah’s passion for reading. During an interview for a 1997 Life Magazine article, Oprah recalled a time when her mother scolded and ridiculed her for being bookish:

“Not only was my mother not a reader, but I remember being in the back hallway when I was about nine—I’m going to try to say this without crying—and my mother threw the door open and grabbed a book out of my hand and said, ‘You’re nothing but a something-something bookworm. Get your butt outside! You think you’re better than the other kids.’ I was treated as though something was wrong with me because I wanted to read all the time. ‘And I’m not taking you to no library!'”

Oprah never stopped reading, though, and her love of reading served her well as she made her way through school and began what would become the most successful broadcasting career in history.

When her celebrity status and financial success allowed her the freedom to do so, Oprah Winfrey began to use her fame and money to change the lives of others. Inspired by a little boy who lived in the projects in Chicago, and who felt alienated by his love of reading, much as she had as a little girl, Oprah started the Families for a Better Life Foundation. The organization subsidized the incomes of families to aid in their goal of moving out of the projects.

Over the years, it has become increasingly important to Oprah that she use her celebrity and her clout to help others change and improve their lives. Today, through her privately-funded Oprah Winfrey Foundation and Oprah’s Angel Network, Oprah continues her philanthropic work and encourages others to do the same.

Oprah’s love of books has been life-long and shows itself in many of the things Oprah chooses to do in her life. As a successful and powerful television force, Oprah has been able to produce film adaptations of some of her favorite books, thereby sharing them with the world, including Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston.

For her 40th birthday celebration, in lieu of expensive gifts, Oprah specified on the invitation that each guest should bring as a gift a copy of the guest’s favorite book. A close friend said of the request, “Oprah is a big bookworm. She loves books more than any other possession.”

Two years later, Oprah decided to promote books and reading on The Oprah Winfrey Show. This may not have been a popular idea with studio executives, but by this time, Oprah was in a position to call the shots.  The first installment of Oprah’s Book Club aired on September 17, 1996. On that show, Oprah announced the very first Oprah’s Book Club selection, The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard. Oprah’s Book Club continued for 15 years, until The Oprah Winfrey Show went off the air in 2011, despite the lack of popular acclaim and despite the cost to Oprah personally. Every time an installment of Oprah’s Book Club aired on The Oprah Winfrey Show, ratings for her television show dropped drastically. But Oprah had a higher purpose in mind than ratings. Oprah Winfrey was credited with revolutionizing the world of books and reading. Every time a book was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, book sales skyrocketed, a phenomenon that came to be known as “The Oprah Effect.”

On June 1, 2012, Oprah launched Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, a book club optimized for the digital age. The new book club is a cooperative effort between the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and O Magazine. Critics were skeptical. They didn’t think the book club could be successful without the large network audience Oprah previously enjoyed. But the Oprah’s Book Club fans were always a large subset of that audience, and they followed Oprah to OWN and O Magazine. The first selection for the new book club, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed, had dropped off the New York Times Bestseller List by the time Oprah announced its selection on June 1st. But by July 15th, a mere six weeks later, it had climbed to the #1 slot on the New York Times Bestseller list for non-fiction, where it remained for many weeks.

Due in large part to Oprah Winfrey’s efforts and commitment, it has become popular to read, not just among highly-educated, white-collar, or college-bound individuals, but for all of us. Many other celebrities have launched their own book clubs since, including Reese Witherspoon’s Reese’s Book Club, Jenna Bush Hager’s Read with Jenna book club, and Shonda Rhimes’s Shondaland Book Club. Thanks to Oprah, children who like to hide away from the world with their books can do so with pride, rather than with shame or embarrassment. Those of us who were called “bookworms” as kids, as if it were a slur, can now hold our heads up high.