Oprah Winfrey Accepts the 50th Anniversary Gold Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

February 2016




Neil Baldwin, photo credit: Sandra Wavrick
Neil Baldwin, photo credit: Sandra Wavrick

Neil Baldwin: Just how historic is this event? I want to recognize some very important members of the audience tonight, in addition to the 1999 National Book Awards Finalists and Judges, whom you will be meeting later in the program. We’re proud to welcome thirty-five past National Book Award Winners this evening, as well as the recipients of our Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. We welcome seventeen distinguished alumni, who attended the very first National Book Awards in 1950, who are here with us. They’ve come to see whether we’ve progressed at all in the past half century, I guess.

We welcome past and present Chairmen, and members of the dedicated Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. And I’d like to extend a special welcome, on behalf of our institutional family, to all the Oprah book club authors who are with us tonight paying tribute to our Gold Medal Recipient. I’d like all of the people I just mentioned to stand and be recognized, and applauded.

This is the largest National Book Awards in history. There are approximately 1,056 people in this room at the present time. I should know. And up there in the balcony, we have over 125 members of the press from around the world. This is also the most successful benefit dinner in the history of the National Book Foundation. Thanks to your philanthropy, we have raised over $1.7 million this evening, in support of our educational outreach programs. Thank you.

And I should add that in spirit, the first three Winners of the National Book Awards 1950, Nelson Algren, Ralph Rusk, and William Carlos Williams, are here in the guise of their three winning books, which are on your tables this evening for you to take a look at.

And now, what can possibly be said about Oprah Winfrey that has not already been said? I was intrigued to learn that her birth name, selected by her mother’s aunt, Ida Carr, was to have been Orpah, from the Bible. But the two letters were transposed on the birth certificate. So, what’s in a name? Orpah, in the Book of Ruth, was Ruth’s sister-in-law. The two women were married to the sons of Naomi. And when their husbands died, Ruth chose to follow Naomi to the Holy Land. However, Orpah has two meanings in Hebrew. One is “the obstinate one.” Perhaps that has something to say. The other is more poetic: “she who rides the clouds.” Orpah resolved to remain faithful to her own people. She turned back alone, independent, to the place of her childhood, and to her roots in Moab.

I think that Aunt Ida demonstrated prescient faith in this newborn child’s qualities. Because if you look at the underlying themes of the books which Oprah has chosen over the past three years for her book club, you will find testimonies to the strength of women in desperate times. You will find morality tales, very much like the tale of Orpah and Ruth, in which someone chooses a road not taken, and takes her own path, instead of one urged upon her by others. And you will discover, as Oprah Winfrey herself has observed in praise of Toni Morrison’s books, literature that goes to the interior of a person’s spirit. You will find heroines, and heroes too, to cheer for. Intrepid, yet often vulnerable. Tough, yet often threatened, as they confront and try to overcome their various demons.

All of the publishers in this room know that Oprah Winfrey possesses the magical quality to create bestsellers. And we recognize, and indeed we are in awe of that phenomenon. The Board of Directors of The National Book Foundation has decided to present Oprah Winfrey with our Fiftieth Anniversary Gold Medal, and with a special crystal sculpture, created for us by Tiffany, because our mission dovetails so well with hers. Through our educational programs, we share her belief that quality, challenging, and, yes, often times difficult literature, can and should be made popular. We share her belief that great literature in our culture, while it always has been the creation of the few, must become the province of many.

We share Oprah’s belief that books change lives. Oprah Winfrey, would you come up, please?



Oprah Winfrey with Yolanda Moses at the 1999 National Book Awards. All Photos: Robin Platzer

Oprah Winfrey: Thank you Neil, and thank you to the National Book Foundation. More than movie stars, and rock stars, and famous politicians, and world leaders, and powerhouse rich muckety mucks, and lah-de-das, I love authors. I just, I love authors. I love authors because in the beginning was the word. The word with the power to sustain us, and fill us, and make us whole. For all of you here tonight, who wrestle with the word, who are bound to and liberated by the word, God bless you. I may appear to be cool, but I really am just plain giddy being in your presence, and being allowed to stand here before you to receive this award.

The very idea – let me just share with you for a moment – of creating a book club on television, came to me by way of my senior producer, Alice McGee, who’s seated at that table there, and producer Laura Sillars, and the entire Book Club team: Heather Short, and Jill Adams, Gregg Sherkin, please stand, because without them this never would have happened. Our executive producer, Diane Hudson, please stand, who said, “Go ahead, do it. Go ahead.”

So, this is how it all started. Alice McGee and Laura came into my office one day, and said, “You know, the book club is really popular, and we know how much you love books. Perhaps maybe you would like to start a book club on television.” Now, Alice and I had been book buddies for a long time, exchanging books since The Color Purple. Every year for Christmas, Alice gives me a leather bound copy of whatever was our favorite read that year. When she and Laura first came to me with the idea, however, of doing a book club on television, needless to say, it didn’t go over very well. I think I said something like, “get out of my office now.” Because we tried it before, because we all love books. And we tried to talk about fiction on television, and it just did dismally in the ratings, because no one else had read the book. So, they persisted with bait that they knew would hook me in. They came back a week later, and said, we know how much you love authors, how you get excited just knowing you can find their numbers. Two years before, Alice and I had shared this experience, because on the back of the book jackets, if the author isn’t very well-known, it lists where they live. So, Alice and I had called up Wally Lamb at home, after reading She’s Come Undone, just to discuss Dolores, and how he could write about a woman so profoundly. And so, we call Wally at home, and found that Wally was doing his laundry. And we couldn’t believe it. We hung up the phone and went, “authors do laundry.” Can’t believe it.

Winfrey with the 1999 National Book Award Winners. L to R: John Dower (Nonfiction); Kimberly Willis Holt (Young People's Literature); Winfrey; Ai (Poetry); Ha Jin (Fiction). Photo by Robin Platzer.So, we later learned that, once they become more successful, they are not listed. Years before I had made a similar call, 1989, to Toni Morrison. She was, of course, unlisted. And I had to call the fire department in her town, claiming an emergency to get her number. I just wanted to talk to her about Beloved. I’d finished reading it, and asked her. I said, “Ms. Morrison, does anyone ever tell you that sometimes they have to go over the sentences several times, to get the full meaning of what you’re really saying?” And she said, “that, my dear, is called reading.” Oh my.

I admire, respect, and adore authors. My reading of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, when I was a teenager, was my first recollection of being validated. The fact that someone as poor as I, as Black as I, from the South, from rape, from confusion, could move to hope, to possibility, and to victory, could be written about in a real book that I had chosen in the library was amazing to me. Authors could do that, with the word.

So, when Alice and Laura came again, and said, we have an idea – every month, you can sit, and you can talk to the author as long as you’d like, and we could even do it over dinner. I thought, authors and dinner, oh my.

Thank you, Neil, for this honor. I thank the National Book Foundation. It’s a charge and a thrill to be acknowledged, as well as a confirmation that doing what you love, and sharing what you love, can bring this much reward. Books allowed me to see that there was a world beyond Mississippi, beyond poverty, beyond Nashville, beyond Milwaukee. Books allowed me a new way of seeing myself, helped me to create a vision that has exceeded even my grandest dreams. Opened the door to experiences and connections I never knew existed. Books helped me to know, what Maya often says, that we really are more alike than we are different. The real blessing for us all at the book club is now being able to open that door for somebody else.

This is how it works. It’s not really very complicated. I choose the books that I truly love. The main criterion is that I have to like it a lot. Sometimes the books are offered to me by one person. Now we have a whole team who reads them. And sometimes I just find them browsing in the bookstores. This past Sunday, I was at Barnes and Noble, bought $688 worth of new fiction, with my corporate discount.

So, the main criteria is that I have to respond to it, and I have ultimate veto power even if they all like it. And the author has to be alive to talk about it. We cannot open that dead author door, because it’s just too wide. Recently Alice came to me and said she had a book that she wanted me to read. And I said, is the author alive? And she said, well, she only died recently. No way.

We have to be taken in by it. Every month, we are just as overwhelmed as the authors and publishers are at how the books are received. Maybe not the publishers. But, since our only profit really is that we are exposing more people to the word, that is our great delight. Here is some of what I wanted to share with you, what that has wrought. We get thousands of letters and emails. Noel Gardener from Morrisville, Pennsylvania said, “I’m so angry with you, Oprah. I’ve spent my time since you’ve started your book club as a crazy person. These books have consumed me. Since your book club has started, I’ve become a real reader. I think that I realize that what reading should be about, apart from being an escape, is making you think, examine, pull apart, and rethink. And maybe, after rethinking, I’m not so angry with you. Maybe I’m just saying thank you for showing me a way to find out who I can really be, who I really am, and what I can really do if I put my mind to it.”

Winfrey with Toni Morrison. Image: Robin Platzer/Twin Images.

Another one says, “My ten-year-old son wanted me,” this is Evelyn in North Augusta, South Carolina. “My ten-year-old son wanted me to read Paradise, after hearing you talk about it on your show. Of course I ignored him at first. But everyday when he came home from school, he would say, mom, did you read that book Miss Oprah said? Finally, I purchased the book, and started reading the first chapter. I was lost” -that my dear is called reading, “But I remember you saying it would get clearer as I got further along. Well, guess what. I could not put the book down. And every day I found myself looking forward to my private getaway with my book. Reading this book has helped me to forget about my own problems. Thanks for opening a new door for me.”

And thousands of others. But my very favorite was a woman who stood up in the audience, not too long ago. I forgot what the show was. We were doing a commercial break, and she stood up and said, “Oprah, hi. My name is Wilma, Wilma Gardener. I’m from Gary, Indiana. I’m a president of the Gary improvement association, and I’m president of my bowling league. I say all that not to brag. Just to let you know, I’m a very intelligent woman. But I haven’t read a book in over 30 years. So, I was so happy you started that book club. I’m a member, you know, of your book club. I get the books when you say get the books, only I don’t get the books you say get. No, I don’t really like the books you recommend. But I do like Patti LaBelle, and I got that book, Don’t Block the Blessings. I just love that book. And then I bought that Michael Jackson book. He didn’t have much to say. But I’m waiting on you to announce when the time is for us to get the next book, because I’m going to buy the Aretha Franklin book. I just want you to know, I’m proud to me a member of your book club.”

Thank you very much.