Reading for Life: Oprah Winfrey

The television talk-show host and media mogul has championed books and libraries

May 25, 2011


“I don’t believe in failure,” Oprah Winfrey has said, and when you talk about celebrities who influence reading, who among them has had more of an impact on American reading habits than this extraordinary television talk-show host? The ways Oprah Winfrey has supported the programs, the mission, and the success of libraries in the United States are legion.

Librarians have been connected to Oprah’s Book Club since its inception in 1996. Publishers of the chosen titles have sent approximately 10,000 copies of each Oprah-selected book to some 3,560 public and high school libraries and other institutional members of the American Library Association. Depending on its size, each library receives up to five copies. The publishers of Oprah’s Book Club selections have distributed more than 600,000 free books to member libraries. Winfrey has made this distribution a central part of her book club, providing libraries across the country with new ways to increase the circulation of good books.

Oprah’s Book Club spawned new interest in reading discussion groups and rocketed every selection to the top of bestseller lists. The Oprah Winfrey Show boosted sales for each title from thousands to hundreds of thousands or, in many cases, millions.

A world to conquer

From a childhood of abuse in a home with no electricity or running water, Winfrey became one of the most influential people in history as host of a television show that has reached more than 40 million Americans every week and millions more in 148 countries. By age 49 she was a self-made billionaire, ruling a vast entertainment and communications empire and symbolizing what an ambitious individual could achieve in America.

“Books were my path to personal freedom,” Winfrey has said. “I learned to read at age 3 and soon discovered there was a whole world to conquer that went beyond our farm in Mississippi.” She credits her father with understanding the value of education: “Because of his respect for education and my stepmother’s respect for education, every single week of my life that I lived with them I had to read library books and that was the beginning of the book club. Who knew? But I was reading books and had to do book reports in my own house. Now, at 9 years old, nobody wants to have to do book reports in addition to what the school is asking you to do, but my father’s insistence that education was the open door to freedom is what allows me to stand here today a free woman.”

By noting on her television show in August 2000 that, according to Good Housekeeping, 77% of elementary teachers say that children return to school reading below or at the same level because they just have been out of practice, Winfrey boosted summer reading. Saying that too many kids “really are taking the summer off,” she suggested that to encourage a young reader, “you have to insist on 15–30 minutes every day to read. You just do.” Winfrey credited her stepmother with having done so. “We would go to the library and would draw books every two weeks. I would take out five books, and I would have a little reading time every day. That’s what encouraged me to become a great reader. Who knew I was going to grow up to have my own book club? But you have to do that with your children, and your children need to see you reading.”

Winfrey said that it is not enough to simply tell children to read but never have books in the house. “You make a field trip of a day to the library and make a big deal out of getting your own library card,” she advised. “And make sure you have books available at home to read. Have your child read aloud so that you can gauge their progress. That’s another good thing to do. And try to get them hooked on a favorite author or a series, like when I was a girl it was Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski and that whole [regional United States] series by Lois Lenski.”

In 2008, ALA’s Association for Library Service to Children collaborated with The Oprah Winfrey Show to provide a Kids’ Reading List that is divided into five age groups (0–2, 3–5, 6–9, 10–12, and 12 and up). Each group contains an annotated bibliography of librarian-recommended reading. The website also provides a list of ways to make reading fun for kids and other helpful tips for parents.

“By teaming up with Oprah’s Book Club, we’re able to connect with a wide range of people we may not have reached otherwise. Whether children come into our library or are given a book from our recommended reading list, we are helping our youngest and most important patrons,” said librarian Pat Scales, who helped create the Kids’ Reading List.

Honoring extraordinary commitment

In 1997, at its Annual Conference in San Francisco, ALA bestowed its highest award on Winfrey, Honorary Membership for life. The honoree was unable to accept the award in person because she was in production with her film Beloved, but she sent a statement of gratitude that was read during the opening session. “I am delighted that the American Library Association wishes to bestow an Honorary Membership upon me,” Winfrey said. Wishing the Association “continued success,” she added, “Know that I appreciate you thinking of me.”

The award citation reads: “Oprah Winfrey, through her Book Club, has done more to revitalize and promote the importance of reading among American citizens than any other public figure in recent times. Through libraries, she has helped make books available free of charge to many who might not have been able to purchase their own copies. She has refocused attention on the important role of the library in the community.”

In 2004 Winfrey accepted the United Nations Association of the United States of America Global Humanitarian Award, saying: “As a young girl in Mississippi, I had big dreams at a time when being a Negro child you weren’t supposed to dream big. I dreamed anyway. Books did that for me. Books allowed me to see a world beyond the front porch of my grandmother’s shotgun house and gave me the power to see possibilities beyond what was allowed at the time: beyond economic and social realities, beyond classrooms with no books and unqualified teachers, beyond false beliefs and prejudice that veiled the minds of so many men and women of the time. For me, those dreams started when I heard the stories of my rich heritage. When I read about Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Mary McLeod Bethune and Frederick Douglass. I knew that there was possibility for me.”

Winfrey has also been a champion of intellectual freedom and journalistic integrity. In 2008, when the superintendent of schools in Loudoun County, Virginia, decided to remove from general circulation And Tango Makes Three, an award-winning children’s book by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson about two male penguins hatching and parenting a baby chick, Winfrey criticized the removal on her show.

In 2006, Winfrey’s on-air scolding of author James Frey for falsifying sections of his 2005 book A Million Little Pieces made television history, forcing him to admit that portions of the Oprah’s Book Club selection—a wrenching memoir about addiction—were complete fiction. Scheduled to be interviewed onstage at the 2008 ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, California, Frey cancelled at the last minute, but the whole controversy had created a call to action for the publishing industry.

On the October 26, 2005, episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, it was announced that ALA was the recipient of an Oprah’s Angel Network Book Club Award for $50,000 to support the Great Stories Club, a national reading and discussion program of ALA’s Public Programs Office and its Young Adult Library Services Association. Two years later, Oprah’s Angel Network awarded $300,000 to the Great Stories Club. The new funding allowed the program to continue through September 2011 (coincidentally, the month that The Oprah Winfrey Show comes to an end), reach 700 libraries, and distribute more than 20,000 new books to teens.

“We’re pleased to provide additional funding to the ALA Great Stories Club,” Caren Yanis, then-executive director of Oprah’s Angel Network, said at the time. “We’re inspired that this program not only provides meaningful books to at-risk and underserved youth, but also that it addresses the importance of creating opportunities for these young people to share and discuss their own stories with their peers. As a result of this program, we look forward to seeing many more young people positively impacted by their involvement with reading and libraries.”

Of the Great Stories Club, 2006–2007 ALA President Loriene Roy said, “Many teens owned or read a book from cover to cover for the first time because of this program, which created new community partnerships and provided service to an overlooked, under-resourced group of young readers.”

An angel on two continents

On January 2, 2007, celebrities lined up in the small town of Henley-on-Klip, in the Gauteng province of South Africa, to back Winfrey as she opened her new $40-million Leadership Academy for Girls. Designed to raise girls from poverty to positions of leadership, the academy is equipped with a state-of-the-art library whose collection includes personally inscribed books from opening-day guests such as Sidney Poitier, Tina Turner, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Chris Rock, and Spike Lee. Built on a 52-acre campus, the 28-building complex also includes computer and science labs, a theater, and a wellness center.

The year before, Winfrey had handpicked the first two classes of 7th- and 8th-grade students who were to attend the Leadership Academy. To qualify, the girls had to come from households with a monthly income of not more than 5,000 rand (about $787 U.S.) and had to have exhibited academic talent and leadership ability in their communities.

Nelson Mandela, whom Winfrey credited with inspiring her to build the school, attended the opening ceremony. The anti-apartheid leader who became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994 told Winfrey, “This is not a distant donation but a project that clearly lies close to your heart.” The school enables poor children, grades 7 through 12, from all over South Africa to attain an education that would otherwise be impossible.

“These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire,” Winfrey told Newsweek. “I wanted this to be a place of honor for them because these girls have never been treated with kindness. They’ve never been told they are pretty or have wonderful dimples. I wanted to hear those things as a child.”

“When you educate a woman, you set her free,” Winfrey has said. “Had I not had books and education in Mississippi, I would have believed that’s all there was.”

In 1987, years before she started her book club but already the star of the number one talk-show on television, Winfrey posed for an ALA READ poster, which also made the November cover of American Libraries. Winfrey posed for the photograph on a sunny day in Chicago’s Grant Park with her “all-time favorite book,” Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. She said at the time that she read five books a week to prepare for her show, and that her “passion” was browsing in bookstores, “looking for the right book, the one you can’t put down.”

Winfrey’s Harpo Films has produced projects based on classic and contemporary literature—just another way she has brought great works to the attention of a viewing audience, which often then goes back to read the book. In addition to Beloved, telefilms under the “Oprah Winfrey Presents” banner have included Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

“When I was a kid and the other kids were home watching Leave It to Beaver,” Winfrey has said, “my father and stepmother were marching me off to the library.” She put it this way: “Getting my library card was like citizenship; it was like American citizenship.”

LEONARD KNIFFEL is publisher of the @ your library website at the American Library Association. He was on the editorial staff of American Libraries from 1988 to January 2011, the last 14 years as editor in chief. This article is adapted from his new book Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries, copublished in April by ALA Editions and Skyhorse Publishing.


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