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.”

  • Hamas freed 13 Israelis, 10 Thais and one Filipino who had been held hostage in Gaza in exchange for 39 Palestinian prisoners on the cease-fire’s first day. More than 130 aid trucks reached Gaza.

  • “It’s only a start, but so far it’s gone well,” President Biden said of the cease-fire, adding that “the chances are real” that the two sides will extend it further.

  • Derek Chauvin, the former police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, was said to have been stabbed in an Arizona prison.

  • A growing number of Chinese citizens, frustrated with harsh Covid restrictions and Xi Jinping’s government, are entering the U.S. from Mexico.

  • An advertiser backlash after Elon Musk endorsed a post accusing Jews of “hatred against whites” could cost X $75 million.

📺 “Faraway Downs” (Sunday): Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star in this six-episode series about an Englishwoman struggling to protect her ranch in the Australian outback with the help of a rugged cattleman. If this reminds you of the 2008 movie “Australia,” there’s a reason: Baz Luhrmann created this new show from footage shot for the nearly three-hour maximalist original, which our chief film critic Manohla Dargis once described as “a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion.”

🎬 “May December” (Friday): This movie is loosely based on the life of Mary Kay Letourneau, a woman convicted in 1997 of raping a 13-year-old boy, whom she later married and had children with. Julianne Moore plays Gracie, a woman in a seemingly tranquil marriage. Natalie Portman, playing an actress hired to portray Gracie in a new film, comes to study her. The film is sometimes disturbing and sometimes unexpectedly hilarious. Our pop culture reporter Kyle Buchanan called it the most fun movie at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Now that Thanksgiving is over and December’s upon us, it’s time to shift our thoughts away from turkeys and cranberry sauce and toward cookie season in all its sweet glory. Baking a batch of peanut butter blossoms is a fine way to kick it all off. A classic recipe first popularized by a 1957 Pillsbury Bake-Off, these are simple enough to make with pantry staples and a bag of chocolate kisses, and even easier to devour, one chewy blossom at a time. You can substitute other nut butters for the peanut butter: Almond butter mixed with a few drops of almond extract makes for a delightfully fragrant variation.

“A gateway flaw”: Stretch marks are becoming ubiquitous in lingerie marketing. Some find the strategy disingenuous.

Don’t be that tourist: Learn from these readers’ travel mistakes.

A different kind of proposal: Brides and grooms are asking friends and family to be part of their wedding party with gifts.

We’re in the midst of the biggest gift-shopping weekend of the year. As senior editor of Wirecutter’s gift coverage, I can attest that the only thing better than scoring the perfect present for someone on your list is getting it at a discount. Wirecutter has already done some of the legwork for you: Our editors have spent the year vetting sweet, silly and sentimental gifts, and many of our picks are on sale right now. And if gifts aren’t on your mind quite yet, we’ve got you covered with the best early Cyber Monday deals to browse for yourself. — Jennifer Hunter

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

  • Michigan’s head coach, Jim Harbaugh, won’t be on the sidelines today as he finishes a three-game suspension over his team’s sign-stealing scandal.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *