Last week, The New York Times Book Review entered the homestretch of its three-month-long contest in which readers will select the best book of the past 125 years. Among 25 finalists are classics like George Orwell’s “1984” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and recent titles like Richard Powers’s 2018 novel “The Overstory” and Amor Towles’s 2016 novel “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Voting closes Sunday night, and editors will reveal the winner later this month.
Tina Jordan, a deputy editor of the Book Review, understands why readers might think it is absurd to name just one book.
“Do I think it’s possible to pick the best book of the past 125 years? No, you really can’t,” she said.
But Ms. Jordan said she wanted a contest that would be “participatory for readers,” and provoke meaningful stories about works that are revered or surprising.
In celebration of the Book Review’s 125th anniversary, editors have republished memorable reviews of literary classics and interviews with admired authors. The idea of a readers’ vote to name the best book came to Ms. Jordan last year, when she was looking through early copies of the Book Review.
She discovered that the Letters page once acted like an internet message board — a lively forum “bristling with smart, funny, outraged letters from readers,” she said. Editors would regularly pose questions such as, “What do you think is the best short story written in the English language?” to invite debate.
She got a sense from those old issues that readers felt involved. “That’s what we wanted for our contest, too,” she said.
This isn’t the first time the Book Review has anointed a favorite title. In 1996, staff members asked critics and scholars to pick the best novel of the past 25 years. (The winner, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” is also a finalist this year.) But there was little transparency about the panel’s selection process, Ms. Jordan said, and she was left wondering what other books were in the mix.
So she decided the time had come to ask again — only this time, readers would nominate the books.
To reach as many readers as possible, the Book Review enlisted the help of public libraries across the country. Rebecca Halleck, an editor for digital storytelling and training at The Times, and Urvashi Uberoy, a Times software engineer, helped compile a list of email addresses for nearly 5,000 libraries, hoping they would spread word of their contest to their members. The team sent each library a flyer, designed by Deanna Donegan, an art director for The Times, and Joumana Khatib, an editor on the Books desk, that included a QR code created by the Interactive News Technology desk. When scanned, it would take people to the nomination site.
And it worked: After asking readers to nominate their favorite titles in October, the team received more than 2,600 suggestions from people all over the world.
“I was shocked,” Ms. Jordan said. “Going into this, I’d have been happy if we’d gotten 400.”
A small team of people from around the newsroom spent a few weeks wading through all of the nominations, tagging more than 1,300 book titles, which spanned more than 1,000 authors across fiction, memoir and poetry, in a spreadsheet to determine the 25 most suggested ones. They published some of their favorite reader comments with the 25 finalists last week, and they plan to include more later this month, after the winner is announced.
“The responses, just as we hoped, have been really personal,” Ms. Jordan said. “For some people, this is a book that made them a reader. For others, it changed the way they lived their lives.”
Ms. Jordan said it’s been an education for her, too, and a reminder of how deep the world of literature is. “I had to go look up a lot of these,” she said. “There were lots of works in translation that were new to me.”
Readers can vote for up to three of their favorite titles by going to the New York Times website. The polls close at midnight. After some counting and waiting there will be an announcement. Then debate.
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