How Oprah's Book Club Came to Be
It all began in 1983, when Oprah landed a job as the host of A.M. Chicago, a local talk show that was on its last legs due to poor ratings. Even so, this was a big gig for a 29-year-old Black woman from rural Mississippi at the time. Before she became a household name, Oprah would first resuscitate the struggling morning program and later reshape it into the iconic daytime talk show known around the world as The Oprah Winfrey Show.
It was during those early years in Chicago when Oprah discovered that her intern, Alice McGee, shared her love of literature. It started with The Color Purple, Oprah recalls: "For Christmas in 1985, Alice gave me a leather-encased edition inscribed with this line from The Color Purple: 'She bound to live her life and be herself no matter what'"—a passage Oprah says became a touchstone for her life and career. Soon, the two formed a friendship around discussing and exchanging the books they were reading. Years later, after rising through the ranks to become a senior producer, Alice suggested the Oprah Show audience might be interested in the kinds of literary discussions they were already having behind the scenes. "Pretty smart idea," Oprah thought.
At first, the team was skeptical: "They said that you can't talk about fiction on television because no one will have read the book you're talking about," Oprah remembers. But eventually, the show figured out that if they could announce the book and then give people time to read it, enough of the audience would be engaged that they could forge a conversation around the text.
And that is how, on September 17, 1996, Oprah's Book Club was born. Over the course of its 15-year run as a discussion segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah's Book Club recommended 70 titles, beginning with The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard. This gut-wrenching novel about an American family that comes undone after a child is kidnapped would go on to become a best-seller.
Oprah's Book Club set an ambitious pace, announcing upwards of eight new titles per year. Fans were heartbroken in 2002 when Oprah announced she couldn't keep up with the required reading while still searching for contemporary novels she enjoyed, and would therefore be discontinuing the club. Unsurprisingly, Lady O couldn't resist the pull of literary discussion for long: In 2003, she announced she would revive the Book Club, with new selections rolling out on a more limited basis.
Over the years, Oprah's recommendations have ranged from memoirs to works of fiction, from spiritual guidebooks to probing analyses of the social and political climate. Due to the Book Club's widespread popularity, many obscure titles have become bestsellers, increasing sales in some cases by as many as several million copies—a phenomenon so universally recognized that the media coined the phrase "The Oprah Effect."
Although recent announcements have centered on brand-new releases, a number of Oprah's Book Club selections have drawn from a body of established, award-winning works of prose. For instance, in 1996, when Oprah announced Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon as the second Oprah's Book Club selection, the Nobel Prize-winning novel published two decades earlier suddenly rocketed to the top of best-sellers lists once again. Publishers rushed to churn out hundreds of thousands of fresh copies to meet readers' demands for the book. Other selections have been incredibly prescient: In March 2007, Oprah announced Cormac McCarthy's then-newly-published The Road. Shortly after, the post-apocalyptic novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Just as Oprah's selections have run the gamut in terms of genre and subject matter, so too have the Book Club's modes of outreach. Although The Oprah Winfrey Show aired for the last time in 2011, Oprah's Book Club—a trusted authority on the best in literature—lives on. In 2012, Oprah launched Oprah's Book Club 2.0, a joint project between OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network and O, The Oprah Magazine, which kicked off with Wild by Cheryl Strayed. That's not all: In 2019, Oprah unveiled a special revival of Oprah's Book Club for Apple TV+, featuring exclusive author interviews and intimate audience talk-backs in a nod to the original format.
Most recently, Oprah's Book Club announced its expansion to a new frontier: Podcasts! As we move further into this exciting new digital age, fans can now tune in to Oprah's Book Club Podcast for chapter-by-chapter close readings of the August 2020 pick, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson—a book Oprah has described as "a must-read for humanity."
If one thing is certain, it's that books are just as important now as they've ever been. We're proud to say that after 24 years of life-changing books, Oprah's Book Club fans can continue to look forward to a special selection of essential new reads each year—and trust that every one has been carefully vetted and hand-picked by Lady O herself.