Looking Back on the Best and Most Controversial Oprah's Book Club Selections Ever

The latest iteration of the iconic host's Oprah's Book Club launched on Apple+ on Friday, Nov. 1; will any of her picks stack up against these past bestsellers?

By Tierney Bricker Nov 01, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Related: Does Oprah Winfrey Go to Gayle or Stedman Most Often for Advice?

Welcome back to the book club, did you bring the wine? 

Oprah's Book Club officially returned on Friday, Nov. 1, with Oprah Winfrey's new series helping launch Apple+, Apple's new streaming service. With a new episode debuting every two months, Oprah's loyal following will have plenty of time to dig into her selections, which she first began offering back in 1996 on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Plus, for every Oprah's Book Club selection sold on Apple Books, Apple will make a contribution to the American Library Association.

First up? The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, with the acclaimed author following in the footsteps of iconic writers such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Elie Wiesel, Cormac McCarthy and many more.

During The Oprah Winfrey Show's run, Oprah recommended 70 books, many of which rocketed to the top of the sales charts after they were announced her as pick. The book world was in awe of Oprah's power to inspire her viewers (26 million weekly) to run out and purchase books, and editors likely prayed for their authors' work to be selected.

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Looking Back on the Best and Most Controversial Oprah's Book Club Selections Ever

But as the Club continued, Oprah began taking hiatuses with longer breaks in between recommendations and with classic novels being selected, meaning no in-depth interviews with the author on her show as part of the discussion. 

In 2012, she launched Book Club 2.0, which lived mostly online and on the OWN Network, Oprah's cable channel, with 11 books selected, but Oprah's goal for the latest version of Oprah's Book Club is her most ambitious yet. 

Apple

"I am who I am today because of the experience of learning to read at an early age. Reading opened up a whole world for me beyond the red dirt road and my grandmother's porch in Mississippi," Winfrey said in a statement when the show was announced. "I want to do that for everybody. And the opportunity to do this with Apple, to speak to people all over the world about the pleasures, the excitement, the tension, the drama that a good book can bring you…I don't know what's better than that."

But some of Oprah's previous picks ended up bringing quite the drama themselves, including an infamous showdown between the legendary host and one of the authors.

Look back on some of Oprah's best and most controversial selections over the years...

A Million Little Pieces

At the end of The Oprah Show's run in 2011, James Frey's Oprah-approved memoir, picked in 2005, was the club's second best-selling book ever, with 2.6 million copies. That number arguably could've been helped by Oprah's infamous on-camera evisceration of Frey after it was revealed he had exaggerated and largely fabricated key parts of the book. Their heated exchange made global headlines, with Oprah also taking his editor to task for not fact-checking his story. 

Still, the author returned to the hot seat in Oprah's final season, though he said he felt "ambushed" six years prior, but "in some ways I deserved it." Frey as there to promote his new novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, which was obviously not part of the Book Club but went from No. 10,286 to No. 253 on Amazon's sales ranking after his appearance.

The Corrections

Aside from Frey, the 2001 selection is arguably the Book Club's other big "scandal," as its author Jonathan Franzen wasn't exactly thrilled to be picked. After calling his own work "a hard book for that audience," he said Oprah "picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books] that I cringe, myself."

After hearing his complaints, Oprah disinvited Franzen from appearing on the show, releasing the following statement: "He is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict." Translation: boy bye. 

Franzen then apologized, saying, "I'm sorry and I wish we could have dinner. Maybe not on TV." Not interested then, Oprah eventually invited Franzen on her show in 2010 when she chose his novel Freedom as her pick, which went on to hit No. 1.

Wild

When Oprah launched Oprah's Book Club 2.0 after a two-year hiatus, she picked Cheryl Strayed's Wild as the new iteration's first novel, with Oprah sitting down for a two-hour interview with the author as part of Super Soul Sunday on the OWN Network in 2012. 

The memoir had initially debuted at No. 7 when it was first released, but quickly rose to No. 1 after Oprah announced it as her first pick. It held the top spot for seven consecutive weeks, and in 2014, Wild was adapted into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, another avid celebrity reader/book clubber, and Laura Dern, with both actresses receiving Oscar nominations.

Becoming

For for December 2018 pick, Oprah selected former First Lady Michelle Obama's memoir, with the two powerhouse women also sitting down for a primetime special on OWN Network and an unedited podcast conversation. Oh, and Oprah conducted the interview for Obama's Elle cover. 

"I want the whole world to read this book. I know everyone is already pre-ordering, and if you're in a book club, you should read it together," Oprah said of the memoir that would go on to hit No. 1 on the New York Times' bestsellers list. "It is Michelle Obama's story, of course, but I know it's going to spark within you the desire to think about your own becoming."

A New Earth

Oprah's Book Club's most successful pick was Eckhart Tolle's self-help book in 2008, which went on to sell an estimated 5 million copies by 2011. It spent the most consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the best-sellers list (11 weeks) and was promoted by Tolle and Oprah teaming up for 10 weekly 90-minute webinars. "This is the most exciting thing I've ever done," Oprah said at the time of their team-up, which was about discussing each chapter of the 2005 book's quest to awaken readers to their life's purpose. 

It was the first time Oprah had selected a self-help book as one of her official picks, and A New Earth became the fastest-selling title in the Club's then 61-book run. 

 

The Road

After announcing Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel as her pick in 2007, Oprah promised, "It is so extraordinary. I promise you, you'll be thinking about it long after you finish the final page...[It is] very unusual for me to select this book, but it's fascinating."

If readers through the book was bleak, Oprah's chances of landing an interview with the reclusive author seemed bleaker. But that is the power of Oprah, who was able to land the first television interview ever with McCarthy.

"Mr. McCarthy respects her work, admires what she has accomplished, has an awareness of her book club, and thought it would be interesting to participate in the conversation with Oprah," his publicist told the Associated Press at the time. 

Before Oprah announced it as her pick, The Road had sold 138,000 copies in hardcover since its publication in September 2006; it would go on to become one of the Club's highest-selling books, with almost 1.4 million copies  reportedly sold by 2011. (It also won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.)

A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations

For the original iteration of the Book Club's final pick, Oprah threw her audience for a curve ball, selecting two classic works of literature that she had never read before. "Dickens for the holidays!" Oprah declared of her December 2010 picks, explaining she had "always wanted to read Dickens over the holidays." 

Alas, with great expectations came low sales, as the special two-book edition of Dicken's classic tales only hit No. 52 on the sales list, with the host later admitting the novels weren't the right fit for her or her audience.

"I would have to say Dickens let me down. Dickens let me down!" she told USA Today. "Of all the people! We were being sentimental about it. We misread the pulse and I had never read it, so I had no enthusiasm."

Oprah's Book Club is now available to stream on Apple+.