This Day In History: September 17

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On September 17, 1996, daytime talk show host Oprah Winfrey launches a television book club and announces “The Deep End of the Ocean” by Jacquelyn Mitchard as her first selection. Oprah’s Book Club quickly became a hugely influential force in the publishing world, with the popular TV host’s endorsement capable of catapulting a previously little-known book onto best-seller lists.

When Oprah’s Book Club first launched, some in the publishing world were skeptical about its chances for success. As The New York Times noted: “Winfrey’s project—recommending books, even challenging literary novels, for viewers to read in advance of discussions on her talk show—initially provoked considerable skepticism in the literary world, where many associated daytime television with lowbrow entertainments like soap operas and game shows.” However, the club proved to be a hit with Winfrey’s legions of fans, and many of her picks sold over 1 million copies. (She earned no money from book sales.) Winfrey’s ability to turn not just books but almost any product or person she recommended into a phenomenon came to be known as the “Oprah Effect.”

Winfrey gave her stamp of approval to books by first-time novelists, including Mitchard, Wally Lamb (“She’s Come Undone”) and David Wroblewski (“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”), as well as established authors, such as Maeve Binchy (“Tara Road”), Cormac McCarthy (“The Road”) and Jeffrey Eugenides (“Middlesex”). Toni Morrison had four works selected for the club—”The Bluest Eye,” “Paradise,” “The Song of Solomon, and “Sula”—more than any other author.

In 2001, after Winfrey chose novelist Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” he famously offended her by publicly suggesting that some of her selections were “schmaltzy” and that being picked for the club might alienate a book’s potential male readership. Franzen’s invitation to appear on Winfrey’s TV show to discuss his work was rescinded; however, he got a second chance nine years later, when his best-selling novel “Freedom” was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. In December 2010, he went on her show to talk about his novel, which Winfrey called “a masterpiece.”

In 2003, Winfrey switched her recommendations from contemporary titles to classic tomes, including “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck, “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck and “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers. In 2004, when Winfrey chose “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, the novel’s publisher printed an additional 800,000 copies.

In 2005, Winfrey reversed her nothing-but-the-classics policy, in part so she could have in-person discussions with the authors whose work she endorsed. Her first contemporary title was James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” a 2003 memoir about addiction and recovery. After appearing on Winfrey’s show to promote the book, Frey was later forced to admit that parts of the story were fiction. He appeared on the show again in early 2006 and faced tough questioning from Winfrey. Frey’s fabrications sparked a national debate over the definition of memoir.

By the final season of Winfrey’s TV show,” in 2011, more than 60 titles had been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.