February 18, 2016

Dispatches from a Locked Room

Early January marked the completion of my third year serving on the American Library Association’s Notable Books Council, and it’s been quite a journey. With twelve members suggesting anywhere from 5 to 25 titles per month for consideration, the books start piling up, and one’s personal reading is sacrificed on the altar of literary merit.

Awarded in various guises since 1944, the Notable Books List is charged with identifying the best books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry published in a calendar year. Criteria for consideration include books that possess extraordinary literary merit, expand the horizons of human knowledge, make a specialized body of knowledge available to the general reader, present a unique concept or new idea, or have the potential to contribute to the solution of a problem.

In any given year, the “best” books are a beautiful mix determined by the offerings of (very generous!) publishing houses large and small, the personalities at play among Council members, and the lively discussion that informs our final decisions. We meet twice annually to discuss nominated books, with most of the discussion happening at the Midwinter meeting, since Council members tend to hoard nominations until the very end (leading to lots of reading and minimal celebration over the winter holidays!). The list is usually about 25 or 26 titles, with roughly half being fiction, half nonfiction, and one or two volumes of poetry.

Beyond those broad categories, there is no effort to pick books as a group or of a certain type -- no seeking out a “science” book or excluding biographies of General Patton because we’ve already picked too many. Last year we had nine nominations for short story collections, and reiterated to newer members that each book should be considered on its own merits (we ended up with three, although if it had been nine that certainly would have said something about the short story renaissance that’s been happening in publishing).

What ultimately makes a book notable is not where it falls on a fixed graph of literary merit, but rather a confluence of perspective, taste, and our cultural moment. So, if you ever take a turn judging for an award, keep in mind the following: vote for what you like, remember that discussion is important, and trust the process.  

One last takeaway: The correct plural of octopus is octopuses (check out the list below for an explanation).  See if you can work this into conversation today!

2016 Notable Books List:


Victoria Caplinger manages the cataloging department at NoveList and currently serves on the ALA Notable Books Council.

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