What Oprah knows for sure — in her own voice

in Nonfiction by

When Oprah speaks, people listen.

Perhaps that’s what makes the unabridged audiobook version of Oprah Winfrey’s latest offering, What I Know for Sure (Macmillan Audio, 2014), stand apart from other audio presentations.

The book (and audiobook) is a collection of 14 years of monthly columns written by Winfrey for O magazine. Read in the author’s trademark rich, mellifluous voice, the columns are observations about life, and what she knows for sure about fulfilling one’s potential and achieving a meaningful existence.  

It was an innocent question asked during a 1998 interview by the late film critic Gene Siskel that spurred Winfrey on the lifelong exploration that would lead to the column. “Tell me,” Siskel asked, “what do you know for sure?” At the time, the question flummoxed Winfrey.

“Sixteen years and a great deal of thought later, it has become the central question of my life,” Winfrey says. “At the end of the day, what exactly do I know for sure?”

The answers, she says, often came in moments of solitude. She says she’ll “find myself walking the dogs or brewing a pot of chai or soaking in the tub, when, out of nowhere, a little moment of crystal clarity will bring me back to something that in my head and my heart and my gut, I absolutely do know beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

201405-omag-wikfs-949x534And these observations, divided into chapters on joy, resilience, connection, gratitude, possibility, awe, clarity, and power, are all hard-earned by one of the most remarkable women of our era. Born out of wedlock and into poverty, sexually abused during a childhood of hardship and pregnant by age 14, Winfrey grew up to become North America’s only African-American billionaire, a noted philanthropist, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and perhaps the most influential woman in the world.

Yet, for all the accomplishments of the woman dubbed “the Queen of All Media,” it is simple, plain, heartfelt truth that allows each column—some no more than a paragraph or two—to strike the listener with such veracity. And it doesn’t hurt that these observations are delivered by a master broadcaster. AudioFile Magazine said of the audiobook, “Winfrey’s warm, familiar voice makes each personal story powerful and entertaining. Her narration adds authenticity to the underlying teachings on the importance of spirit and love.”

“What I know for sure,” she says early in the audiobook in the chapter on joy, “is that every day brings a chance for you to draw in a breath, kick off your shoes, and step out and dance—to live free of regret and filled with as much joy, fun, and laughter as you can stand. You can either waltz boldly onto the stage of life and live the way you know your spirit is nudging you to, or you can sit quietly by the wall receding into the shadows of fear and self-doubt.”

21531475Tough to argue with her on that one.

“Whenever I’m faced with a difficult decision, I ask myself: What would I do if I weren’t so afraid of making a mistake, feeling rejected, looking foolish, or being alone?” she asks while addressing the topic of resilience. “I know for sure that when you remove the fear, the answer you’ve been searching for comes into focus. And as you walk into what you fear, you should know for sure that your deepest struggle can, if you’re willing and open, produce your greatest strength.”

Winfrey also pauses to address thing that seem like smaller issues, but might have more significant implications: “I know for sure that a meal that brings you real joy will do you more good in the long and short term than a lot of filler foods that leave you standing in your kitchen, roaming from cabinet to fridge . . . All the carrots, celery, and skinless chicken breasts in the world can’t give you the satisfaction of one incredible piece of chocolate if that’s what you really crave.”

By putting listeners in touch with these kinds of basic, elemental truths—truths that we might lose sight of in our hectic lives—Winfrey not only reassures us, but encourages us to examine what we know for sure. “My hope is that you’ll begin to ask yourself the very same question Gene Siskel asked me all those years ago,” she says. “I know that what you’ll find along the way will be fantastic, because what you’ll find will be yourself.”

Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.

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