Oprah's library
Photo: Matthew Rolston
Where does the woman who got America reading curl up with a good novel? Welcome to the book-filled haven where no one ever says, "Shhhh!"
Oprah sits on a comfortable sofa beneath her bookshelves, her golden retriever Luke snoozing companionably beside her. Yes, the library off the front hall of her Santa Barbara home is a calm and restful room—decorated with soft, celadon-green walls, sage-colored chairs, fresh flowers, and elegantly lit paintings. But it's also the kind of place where a beloved dog is allowed to hop up onto the furniture.

Likewise, the rows of first editions that cover the wall constitute a smashing collection, to be sure. But, Oprah explains, "I'm not a book snob. First editions are great, but so are all books. If you're starting your own library, all that matters is that you start with what you love."

For her, this has meant acquiring the titles that enable her to realize a long-held and very personal desire: "I have always wanted to be surrounded by black authors," she says. "Now I have all of Langston Hughes, all of Paul Laurence Dunbar; Zora Neale Hurston—all of her writing."

Just saying their names stirs Oprah. She stands up and clasps her hands behind her back. Reciting Dunbar's lines, her voice sounds younger, almost as if she were a schoolgirl:

"Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes
Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee."

When she finishes, Oprah settles back into the sofa. "Even as a kid," she explains, "my memories are of books taking me out of myself." Hoping to give other children a similar experience, she's donated 6,000 books to juvenile-justice facilities and other youth-outreach organizations through a partnership between her Angel Network and the American Library Association. Oprah has also shared more than 60 reading recommendations through her nearly 2-million-member book club. So although this room is devoted to storing and displaying her collection, no place, really, can physically contain all the titles that have meant something to this book lover. And this room doesn't. Just outside the library, there's a stereo closet in which books outnumber CDs. An adjoining hallway is lined with two additional bookcases. Even the nearby powder room features floor-to-ceiling built-ins, stocked with still more volumes.

On the shelves directly above the sofa, however, Oprah has placed first editions of Pulitzer Prize winners, including 1948's Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, awarded the prize in 2008. Not to mention Harper Lee's 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, which Oprah describes as her favorite novel of all time.

In amassing this complete set, Oprah has been aided by Kinsey Marable, an investment banker turned rare-book dealer, who specializes in building private libraries for individual clients (Donna Karan is one). Marable sent Oprah's first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird to the famously reclusive author, along with a request for her to autograph it. "It was a nerve-racking experience," says Marable, because the only address he had was a P.O. box number, and he "took the book to the post office not knowing whether we would ever see it again." Almost immediately, Lee returned the prized copy—signed.

Oprah has been working with Marable since 2003, his services a gift from the Hearst Corporation (which publishes this magazine and O, The Oprah Magazine, in partnership with Harpo). He and Oprah first got together on a Saturday afternoon to talk about her interests: literature, of course, but also architecture, fashion, and gardens. Since then, their relationship has evolved into a warm, informal one. They will sit on the floor, books spread out around them, or Oprah will call him with an idea for a title they should track down, always asking for his honest advice. She tells him, Marable says, "Do not be a yes-man—what do you really think?" 

Oprah's collection has also grown to include scores of gorgeous coffee-table books, devoted to painters like Matisse and Mary Cassatt, photographer Cecil Beaton, and interior designer David Hicks. "There are a lot of fun books in there, which makes it a functioning library for everyday reading," says Marable. He's currently working to assemble an archive of fashion magazines going back to 1940. No matter the age or the value, however, nothing here is too precious to flip through. Oprah opens a bound volume of vintage magazines at random, and suddenly she's immersed in elongated black-and-white drawings of Christian Dior's New Look, willowy models with tiny waists and full, flowing skirts, ushering in post-war concepts of femininity. She points to an article entitled "Ideas to watch in 1949" and—marveling at this back-in-time glimpse at how people saw the future—says, "I just think that's fabulous."

When does one of the world's busiest people find the time to read? Her answer is surprising: "I don't watch television," she says. "I don't have to, because my friend Gayle watches more television than anyone—she couldn't believe I wanted to have a house without a TV room!" Oprah continues, laughing. "Honest to God, true story: Stedman and I had been in the house four or five months when he said he was going out to a friend's to watch a football game. Suddenly I thought maybe I'd seen a television set somewhere upstairs. When we found it, Stedman said, 'You mean there's been a TV in this house all this time?'" Given how Oprah looks forward to her reading time—"It's a ritual," she says—it's easy to see how a lone television might have escaped her notice. "This is the thing," she explains. "I come here, and I'm so fulfilled. I will rarely go out. I can just entertain myself."

The other evening, Oprah says, she made a nice fire. Then she gathered up her dogs, a hot cup of tea, and, of course, a pile of reading—and thought to herself, "Now this is happiness.''

Because she is given so many books, Oprah occasionally needs to do some weeding. But then she has to face what to do with her castoffs. "I can't throw books out. I can give them away. I box them up and send them to hospitals and women's prisons, but I can't put them in the trash," she says. "I've tried, and even gone back to get them out of the trash. It's disrespectful." It doesn't matter whether the book is good or bad: For Oprah, what's significant is the effort someone put into writing it.

"Throwing a book in the trash," she says, "is like throwing away a person."


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