This piece was originally published in the Fall 2008 issue of Oh home.
Oprah sits on a comfy couch under her bookshelves, her golden retriever Luke dozing friendly next to her. Yes, the lobby library of her Santa Barbara home is a quiet, restful room, decorated with soft celadon-green walls, sage-colored chairs, fresh flowers, and elegantly lit paintings. But it’s also the kind of place where a beloved dog is allowed to hop on the furniture.
Likewise, the rows of original editions that cover the wall make for a smashing collection, that’s for sure. But, Oprah explains, “I’m not a book snob. First editions are great, but so are all books. If you’re starting your own library, all that matters is that you start with what you love.” .”
For her, this resulted in the acquisition of titles which allow her to concretize an old and very personal desire: “I always wanted to be surrounded by black authors”, she says. “Now I have all of Langston Hughes, all of Paul Laurence Dunbar; Zora Neale Hurston – all of her writing.”
Just saying their names stirs Oprah. She stands up and clasps her hands behind her back. Reciting Dunbar’s lines, her voice sounds younger, almost as if she were a schoolgirl:
“Little brown baby with spa’klin’ eyes
Come to your daddy and get on his lap.”
When she’s finished, Oprah settles back on the couch. “Even as a child,” she explains, “my memories are books that come out of me.” Hoping to give other children a similar experience, she donated 6,000 books to juvenile justice facilities and other youth outreach organizations through a partnership between her Angel Network and the American Library Association. Oprah has also shared more than 60 book recommendations through her book club of nearly 2 million members. So while this room is dedicated to the storage and display of her collection, no one place can actually physically contain all of the titles that have meant something to this book lover. And this room no. Just outside the library, there is a stereo cupboard in which books outnumber CDs. An adjoining hallway is lined with two additional bookcases. Even the nearby wet room features floor-to-ceiling built-ins, filled with even more volume.
On the shelves directly above the sofa, however, Oprah placed early editions of Pulitzer Prize winners, including those from 1948. Tales from the South Pacificby James A. Michener, and The Wonderful Brief Life of Oscar Waoby Junot Diaz, winner in 2008. Without forgetting the 1960 classic by Harper Lee, Kill a mockingbirdwhich Oprah describes as her favorite novel of all time.
To put together this comprehensive package, Oprah was aided by Kinsey Marable, an investment banker turned rare book dealer who specializes in building private libraries for individual clients (Donna Karan is one). Marable sent Oprah’s first edition of Kill a mockingbird to the reclusive famous author, with a request that she dedicate it. “It was a nerve-wracking experience,” says Marable, as the only address he had was a post office box number, and he “took the book to the post office not knowing if we would ever see it again.” Almost immediately, Lee returned the prized copy, signed.
Oprah has worked with Marable since 2003, her services being a gift from Hearst Corporation (which publishes this magazine and Oh, Oprah’s Magazine, in partnership with Harpo). He and Oprah first met on a Saturday afternoon to talk about her interests: literature, of course, but also architecture, fashion and gardens. Since then, their relationship has become warm and informal. They’ll sit on the floor, books spread around them, or Oprah will call him with an idea of a title they should research, always asking for his honest advice. She tells him, Marable says, “Don’t be a yes – what do you really think?”
“If you’re starting your own library, all that matters is that you start with what you love.”
Oprah’s collection has also grown to include dozens of beautiful coffee table books, dedicated to painters like Matisse and Mary Cassatt, photographer Cecil Beaton and interior designer David Hicks. “There are lots of fun books in there, making it a functional bookcase for daily reading,” says Marable. He is currently working on building an archive of fashion magazines dating back to 1940. Regardless of age or value, however, nothing here is too valuable to leaf through. Oprah randomly opens a bound volume of vintage magazines, and suddenly she’s immersed in elongated black-and-white drawings of Christian Dior’s New Look, slender models with tiny waists and full, flowing skirts, ushering in concepts of femininity. post-war. She points to an article titled “Ideas to Watch in 1949” and, marveling at this retrospective glimpse of how people saw the future, says, “I think it’s fabulous.”
When does one of the busiest people in the world find time to read? Her answer is surprising: “I don’t watch television,” she says. “I don’t need to because my friend Gayle watches more TV than anyone. She couldn’t believe I wanted to have a house without a TV room!” Oprah continues laughing. “Honestly true story: Stedman and I had been in the house for four or five months when he said he was going to a friend’s house to watch a football game. Suddenly I thought maybe I had seen a television set somewhere upstairs. When we found it, Stedman said, “You mean there’s been a television in this house all this time? The television could have escaped him.” That’s the thing,” she explains. “I come here and I’m so fulfilled. I rarely go out. I can just have fun.”
The other night, Oprah says, she made a nice fire. Then she gathered her dogs, a cup of hot tea and, of course, a stack of books – and thought, “Now that’s bliss.”
Because she’s given so many books, Oprah sometimes needs to do some weeding. But then she has to face what to do with her cast-offs. “I can’t throw the books away. I can donate them. I wrap them up and send them to hospitals and women’s prisons, but I can’t throw them in the trash,” she says. “I tried, and even went back, to take them out of the trash. It’s disrespectful.” It doesn’t matter if the book is good or bad: for Oprah, what matters is the effort someone put into writing it.
“Throwing a book in the trash,” she says, “is like throwing a person away.”
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