Oprah Winfrey received the AAP Honors Award at the AAP meeting on February 26. She took the occasion to announce the relaunch of her book club. In her remarks, she spoke eloquently about why reading is her favorite gift to herself. We thank Oprah for allowing us to print this edited text of her speech.
Thank you for this honor tonight. It's really a thrill to be honored for something that you treasure, that you love. For me, [books have] been an open door for freedom in my life. That's what books were to me as a little girl growing up in Mississippi. Books allowed me to see that there was a world beyond my grandmother's front porch. That everybody didn't have an outhouse, that everybody wasn't surrounded by poverty, that there was a hopeful world out there and that it could belong to me. [Books were] an open door to dwell in possibility....
Our society values, for some reason, swiftness of experience—we've grown up with instant gratification. I ask, Can the slow art of reading—the slow, sensual art of reading—and its difficult pleasures survive? There are those that argue that the reading of books on a mass scale is a fad like hoola-hoops, like beanie babies. Mass reading, some say, has been going on for a relatively short time in human history and is destined to be supplanted by other, more technologically advantaged modes for understanding our common human experience. I don't believe it. I cannot imagine a world where great works of literature are not read as they have always been. I cannot imagine a world where there is no Shakespeare, where there's no Tolstoy, or George Eliot, or Toni Morrison, or Proust, or Hemingway, or Steinbeck. After a lifetime of reading, I still feel that I am really just getting started. I have a need to immerse myself in books; it is my comfort, it is my solace, to commune with and learn something about myself, to learn something about other people, to learn something about the world—I don't beleive I can ever finally be satisfied. The fire for reading lives within me, instilled by my grandmother way back there in Kosciusko, Mississippi.
The reading of a book, as we all know, demands that we call time out from all of the business of our lives—to luxuriate in a nesting place for hours in solitude. It is absolutely my favorite gift to give to myself. We are compelled in that moment to step back, to slow down, to choose what to read, and hope to savor it on our own good time. The supposed antiquarianism of book reading is what we should prize the most. This activity, which brings us back before the acceleration of everything, before our days of instant gratification, is still for me an exhilarating experience.
When I announced that we were putting the book club on hold, it was like losing a really good friend, and it was hard finding authors every month. I missed the books, because reading concentrates my mind like nothing else quite does. It concentrates my mind on possibilities that lie beyond me and who I am, or better yet, who I might come to be. Caught up in the rush of new books being published every day, finding myself unable to keep up even with those I would like to read, finding myself under the pressure of trying to come up with one every month, became a little overwhelming for me. But since we put the book club on hold, I have had such a delicious, wonderful time reading. It didn't matter if the authors were dead or alive, because I didn't have to make sure they could come to dinner. That was a pressure—finding a book you could read, that a million other people would also want to read, and that the author could come and discuss it and everyone would enjoy the discussion.
In the six years of the book club, what I hadn't counted on was, first of all, it being that successful. It was an idea that just started because I like to read. I thought, I like to read, so I'll just tell those people and a couple more people will read it. We started out burying [the club] in our shows because everybody knows you can't be successful in ratings trying to get everyone to read. As it became more and more popular, we started giving it more time, until finally we were doing entire hours on it—and people who were 35 and 40 years old were writing us, telling us they hadn't picked up a book since high school. That was very exciting to us.
What became exciting to me after we put the book club on hold was just being able to go back and read anything I wanted, and not worry about whether a million other people were going to like it, too.
There are all of those books that we promised ourselves we'd get around to reading, books we may have heard about in high school or college, books that have stood the test of time, and books that are regarded by our culture as classics. As you get older, that list seems to get longer and longer because you didn't get around to doing it. And that's what I've been doing.
Tonight I want to announce that I am going back into the business of recommending books... but with a difference [cheering, standing ovation from the crowd].
The Oprah Winfrey Show will soon begin featuring classic works of literature accessible to every woman and man who reads. We think we're going to call it "Traveling with the Classics." We're going to travel to the book's origin or the book's plot—which gets to be very expensive if it's Russia—for a discussion of the life of its author, or the plot, and its achievements and importance. The measured frequency will allow readers to take their time, to spend time with one author, with several books, to steep themselves in a particular classic for both elucidation and entertainment. We're going to do them as often as we see fit—we're thinking three to five times a year. Our Web site will offer comprehensive support for keener appreciation. I believe that reading is too important an activity to be governed exclusively by critical opinions of the moment or by fashion. I am hoping that with this new venture, "Traveling with the Classics," to be able to invite readers throughout the world to visit or revisit a universe of books of enduring usefulness, because I believe that the sublimity of this experience, this gift to ourselves, is something that we owe to ourselves.