Behind the Book Review’s Best Books List


This past week, The New York Times Book Review published its list of 100 Notable Books of 2023. On Tuesday, a handful of those titles will be named the Review’s 10 Best Books of the year. The list is a closely guarded secret, the product of many months of passionate closed-door debate presided over by Gilbert Cruz, the editor of the Book Review, and Tina Jordan, his deputy.

Because I cannot bear to be in close proximity to a secret that I am not in on, I have, in a nonchalant — some might say devastatingly subtle — fashion tried my damnedest to get Gilbert and Tina to slip and tell me the five books of fiction and five of nonfiction their team has chosen.

They’re not easily entrapped, these two, and who can blame them for keeping the fruits of their painstaking labor secret? The nominating process begins in October of the previous year, when Review editors begin reading the books slated for publication the following January.

Come March, the staff starts meeting monthly to discuss potential titles. The books discussed in these meetings must be nominated by a staffer and have at least one other reader seconding that nomination.

Some people come with prepared speeches in support of the book they’re nominating. Others speak extemporaneously. The debate is spirited. By the conclusion of each meeting, it’s clear which books are garnering support and which are losing steam. “What you’re trying to do at that early stage,” Gilbert said, “is nominate books, but then also weed out books and keep the strongest ones so that they keep moving through the process.”

The meetings ramp up to once a week when fall arrives. Sometimes the discussions last as long as two hours. Other weeks, everyone in the room seems to quickly agree that the book up for discussion is, or is not, going to make the cut. Gilbert and Tina take anonymous straw polls of the assembled staffers: “If you had to pick three of these five books, which would you choose?”

By early October, they stop adding new books and start looking closely at the selections in relation to one another. The goal is to arrive at a list that reflects the year and is balanced — so it doesn’t have, say, two histories that cover the same time period.

“There’s sometimes an assumption that we are trying to send a statement with the list,” Gilbert said. But both he and Tina were adamant that the list is not political, and the only statement they’re making is “these are the best books of the year and you should read them.”

“We’re not engineering the list in any way,” Tina clarified. “We’re not saying, ‘Oh, gosh, at least three of the books on the fiction list need to be by women.’”

A recent study found that less than half of adults had read one or more books for pleasure in the previous year, which Gilbert called “depressingly low.” He hopes that when the Book Review’s list is published on Tuesday at 10 a.m. Eastern, people will find something they’re excited to read. “If The New York Times can be a guide to anyone who cares about books, about the one or two books that they should be reading out of any given year,” he said, “that is a smashing success.”

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For vetted deals sent straight to your inbox, sign up for Wirecutter’s daily newsletter, The Recommendation.

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan, college football: Apart from the national championship, this is the biggest game of the season. The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State is as ancient and fierce as any in college football, and it’s even better when the teams are undefeated, as they both are this year. These are two of the country’s best defenses — Ohio State allows the fewest passing yards of any team, and Michigan gives up the fewest points — so one big play could decide this one. 12 p.m. Eastern on Fox

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