Each year around the holidays, O, the Oprah Magazine releases a list rounding up its favorite books of the year—many of which have been recognized in its Reading Room section earlier in the year. Just don’t call it a best books feature.
“We have the luxury here of not doing the best books of the year,” Leigh Haber, books editor of the magazine and longtime publishing industry editor, says of the list. “It’s not scientific. We don’t have to sit with a panel and decide which of the books on the list has every single element that would make it critically acclaimed and so on.”
It is perhaps a testament, then, to the magazine’s attunement to the times, that O‘s Favorite Books of 2017 reads like a best books list; readers will find Ta-Nehisi Coates, George Saunders, Jenny Zhang, Lisa Ko, Masha Gessen, Mohsin Hamid, Louise Erdrich, Carmen Maria Machado, Morgan Parker, and Angie Thomas in its pages. The overlap with the big prizes—Thomas was longlisted for an NBA, for instance, while Ko and Machado were shortlisted, Gessen won the NBA for nonficton and Saunders is the second American to bring home the Man Booker—shows an eye for socially-conscious and culturally significant work.
“When we’re putting together the favorites of the year, we look at how they have resonated since we read them,” Haber says. “Has the book stayed with us? Does it say something about the current culture? Or do we want to give a book we really liked a little bit more love and put a little more steam in its engines?” She added: “It’s very much how Oprah puts together her book club. Her goal is to help an emerging writer, and a writer she loves, sell more books.”
The list is put together well in advance of awards season, around five months before the December issue of O hits newsstands. Haber works on the list herself while soliciting recommendations from an ersatz committee of regular contributors; “We kind of duke it out,” she says.
And the list, while not deliberately political, does tap into a literary zeitgeist that has, under the current administration in particular but in recent years more generally, turned its eye more fiercely to issues of inclusion, openness, diversity, free speech, and human rights.
“Colson Whitehead talks a lot about the duty of artists to be explosive, to be dynamic, to not be passive, to engage. And every month, in Reading Room, what we try to do is be socially conscious while recognizing the joy and entertainment value of books,” Haber says. “This year, the books we picked, when we looked back on it…we realized how many had something to say about, for example, immigration…. Those themes seem to resonate in our particular culture, although we didn’t set out to pick books on that topic.”