Oprah Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Author, actress, producer, broadcast host, media mogul, and unclassifiable icon that transcends all of these categories, she's known mononymously as Oprah, frequently floated as president material, and has no trouble slipping into character as a celestial and benevolent being of infinite wisdom. With a legacy simply too rich to be squeezed into a single blog post, we celebrate her 69th birthday by highlighting merely one aspect of her multifaceted career; Oprah's Book Club! Spanning almost 100 titles over two and a half decades, Oprah's Book Club has been a sensation worthy of its namesake; dominating best-seller lists, introducing new audiences to classic literature, breaking first-time authors, and advocating close reading and discussion outside of the confines of the academy.
Oprah began in broadcast media in 1973 with Nashville, Tennessee's WVOL radio station. Still, in high school, her affability and ease were immediately apparent, and her talent pulled her through a quick stop in Baltimore before eventually landing in Chicago, the city she's most deeply associated with. Within two years, Oprah built upon the underwatched televised morning talk show AM Chicago, growing it into an eponymous and well-regarded show. By then, The Oprah Winfrey Show was the top-rated daytime talk show in the United States. Edging out competitors in a crowded field, Oprah's strengths were undoubtedly her unending enthusiasm, curiosity, down-to-earth demeanor, and an ability to touch upon difficult topics—trauma, money, broken relationships—without sensationalism. This winning formula brought her into the mid-90s as the most recognizable face of daytime television and a top-grossing entertainer. However, a crowded and competitive afternoon television landscape was beginning to produce increasingly tabloid and sordid programming. This was not lost on Oprah, whose misgivings led to introspection about her program. In a 1997 interview with Jet Magazine, Oprah shares that she had considered quitting after her eleven years of production:
"When I first got the job, I was just happy to be on TV. But as the years evolved, I grew and wanted to say something with the show, not just be a television announcer or a television performer, but I wanted to be able to say things that were meaningful to the American public and culture [...] I wanted to be able to use the show to enlighten as well as entertain, to have people think differently about themselves and their lives."
Rather than quitting, she rededicated herself to television, inspired by her own success as well as her experience in producing and starring in the Toni Morrison adaption Beloved, a haunting and profound novel tracing the attempts made by formerly enslaved Sethe and her family to build a new life. Oprah continues with Jet:
"...I realized that I had no right to quit coming from a history of people who had no voice, who had no power, and that I have been given this - this blessed opportunity to speak to people, to influence them in ways that can make a difference in their lives, and to just use that. So I came back, committed to not be subtle about it, just to use the show to change people's lives wherever I could…"
As a life-long reader and high school orator, Oprah's fondness for books was a passionate pursuit, but was only just beginning to present itself to the public eye. Ilene Cooper, in her biography Oprah Winfrey: A Twentieth-Century Life, describes the origin of the book club:
"The idea sprang from one of her producers, Alice McGee. For years, she and Oprah had traded books back and forth, discussed them, and brought others into their discussions. McGee came to Oprah and said, "Why don't we do this on the air?" At first, Oprah didn't quite get the idea. What? Have a book club on television? Well, yes."
Executives were uneasy; book discussion was about as far away as one could get from competition like "I Do Drugs at Church" (yes, that is the title of a real episode of the profoundly sensational Jerry Springer Show). Nonetheless, Oprah had already established herself as an unstoppable innovator and success and wasn't someone you could say no to. The Book Club kicked off on September 17, 1996, when, at the end of the day's episode, Oprah implored her audience to seek out The Deep End of the Ocean, the debut novel by Jacquelyn Mitchard published a few months prior to a warm reception and respectable sales. Audiences were invited to purchase and read the novel and then to respond via written letter or email with their response or thoughts. This call to action was heeded and the book shot up to the number one best-seller spot, an auspicious beginning and a bellwether for the reliable and astronomic success, which was ultimately dubbed "The Oprah Effect." A month later, a segment was dedicated to The Deep End of the Ocean. Interspersed with a studio audience offering opinions and insights were the written responses, as well as pre-taped moments of a more intimate affair; discussion with hand-selected guests from the studio audience, set against a multi-course meal followed by a trip to a loungey and cozy study, all hosted by Oprah herself.
Between 1996 and 2001, the book club ran on a near-monthly basis, with an emphasis on contemporary authors and realistic fiction. During this period, nearly 50 books were selected, celebrated, and discussed. The format generally remained the same, a chic dinner filled with genuine and intimate conversation, commentary from the studio audience alongside write-ins, and an occasional visit from the author themselves. Book Club episodes ended with an announcement and giveaway of the next title to attendees, maintaining momentum and a dedicated audience. Books were read as literature, taking a scholarly approach at a sentence or passage level, or could be jumping-off points for ways to examine personal experiences or societal issues by focusing on particular scenarios or characters. Oprah cultivated an approach that didn't favor any sort of interpretation over another - just reading, talking, and listening with integrity. As observed by Cecilia Konchar Farr in her academic but enthusiastic Reading Oprah: How Oprah's Book Club Changed the Way America Reads, Oprah took risks not only by championing first-time authors (Janet Fitch, Pearl Cleage, and Chris Bohjalian all debuted with Oprah's nod), but also by highlighting African-American authors, who at that point, with the exceptions of Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan, rarely enjoyed the commercial success afforded to the overwhelmingly white set of popular authors. Farr argues that without Oprah's support, titles such as Lalita Tademy's Cane River and Breena Clarke's River, Cross My Heart would not have received nearly the success that they did.
At the beginning of 2002, Oprah announced that constantly seeking out new fiction for the suitable book club material was becoming exhausting, and she was losing something she loved, pure pleasure reading. The Book Club was briefly halted and then revamped - for the foreseeable future, she would have the club reading what she dubbed the "Great Books"; not necessarily classics but monumental pieces of literature, bringing a bit of the AP English classroom onto daytime television, with her own sensibility worked in. From the elegant, small town ennui of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to the epic family tale The Good Earth, this period reintroduced familiar titles to audiences who may or may not have encountered them before, and additionally proved that the Oprah's Book Club seal adorning covers could breathe new sales into publishers' staid back catalogs. This period also included what was to some an eyebrow-rising campaign, 2005's "Summer of Faulkner," wherein a trio of inarguably imposing works by William Faulkner, consisting of The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August, were discussed. Tough going for many, but close acolytes of her show had been prepared for close and careful reading of "difficult" texts.
Although Oprah has revisited a few authors in the book club, no writer was more celebrated than Toni Morrison. Over the course of the show, no less than four selections of hers were made; Song of Solomon, Paradise, The Bluest Eye, and Sula. Oprah always took special care to ease viewers into Morrison's work, suggesting that rereading sections and reading out loud was critical to understanding both plot and thematic elements, as well as admitting that she too could find the work "hard" but ultimately rewarding. The episode featuring Paradise foregoes the usual dinner-party discussion and finds Oprah and audience guests in Morrison's own Princeton classroom, effectively teaching the book to a class. As Farr observes, the episode's lessons were hardly about imparting correct interpretations or proper reading habits but instead taught attendees and viewers at home
"…not to rely on authorities, not to, in effect, "take a class." The lesson is to trust your own reading while trusting others to expand that reading in conversation."
Difficult texts often come with difficult authors, and one of the club's more dramatic moments came when Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel The Corrections was selected as the read shortly after it was published. Franzen, who had written the essay "Mr. Difficult" about the need for contemporary novels that aspire to be great, lasting art to additionally function as consumable and accessible reads, seemingly sharing a vision with Oprah. However, in the press tour surrounding the book's release, Franzen took shots not only at books she previously selected but wrung his hands over whether the Oprah's Book Club sticker to be added to the cover would affect his male readership. Oprah took the high road, rescinding his invitation, a first and only for the Book Club. The spate was much publicized and studied, but less known was that Frazen's 2010 follow-up Freedom received another Oprah nod, this time accepted by the author, complete with television appearance and on-air hug.
With the Oprah Whinfrey Show wrapping up at the end of 2010 as part of a brand expansion, this period of the book club ended with a double dose of Dickens (Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities), timed for the holiday season. By the summer of the following year, the club returned, now rebranded as Oprah's Book Club 2.0, coinciding with the birth of OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) and her new magazine, with content spread across multiple digital platforms. A more relaxed schedule allowed for a return of contemporary titles, breaking a number of debut authors to a larger audience; Imbolo Mbue, Ayana Mathis, Cynthia Bond and then 20-year old Leila Mottley all received airtime. Additionally, nonfiction selections resumed, with Michelle Obama’s blockbuster Becoming, Jarvis Jay Masters’ death row memoir That Bird Has My Wings, and Isabel Wilkerson’s investigation into racism and social stratification Caste all being highlighted.
While hardly the first book club, Oprah's Book Club redesigned the model for reading on a mass scale. Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine book club is one spiritual successor, started not long after Witherspoon starred in the adaptation of Oprah Book Club pick Wild, championing a diverse selection of literary and lively fiction. Another could be from fellow Chicagoan Noname, whose selections advocate a radical politic and poetic rigor. And of course, the library continues to offer a multitude of book clubs throughout our locations, as well as our annual Big Read event. For many, the ultimate installment of the club would be for Oprah's memoir; initially scheduled for 2016, and tentatively titled The Life You Want, the book has been postponed on multiple occasions and doesn't currently have an estimated publishing date. As her first memoir, it is a heavily anticipated volume, rumored to have received an eight-figure advance, and it will be guaranteed to see sales that rival the top sellers from… Oprah's Book Club! So, while waiting for The Life You Want, or the next installment of Oprah's Book Club, take a look at some key selections, biographies, and scholarly looks into the phenomenon below!