Reading for Life: Oprah Winfrey: The Television Talk-Show Host and Media Mogul Has Championed Books and Libraries

By Kniffel, Leonard | American Libraries, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

Reading for Life: Oprah Winfrey: The Television Talk-Show Host and Media Mogul Has Championed Books and Libraries


Kniffel, Leonard, American Libraries


"I don't believe in failure," Oprah Winfrey has said, and when you talk about celebrities who inspire 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.

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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- school 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. 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."

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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) . …

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