Notable Books List

Purpose: Since 1944, the goal of the Notable Books Council has been to make available to the nation’s readers a list of 25 very good, very readable, and at times very important fiction, nonfiction, and poetry books for the adult reader.

History: The Notable Books List evolved from an activity sponsored by the Lending Round Table of the American Library Association (ALA) in 1944. Since then, the selection of a list of notable or outstanding books of the year has been carried out in a variety of ways, and under various auspices. For three years, the selection was known as Outstanding Books, and was prepared by the ALA Lending Section, with the assistance of membership votes. In 1947, the Division of Public Libraries assumed responsibility of producing the list, changing the name to Notable Books. In 1955, the Notable Books Committee was expanded to become a 12-member Council, and in 1958 was transferred to the Adult Services Division. In 1959, the RASD Board of Directors adopted a statement of purpose and a list of criteria for Notable Books. These documents codified the characteristic philosophy and methodology of Notable Books and remain guiding principles today. In 1966, the Council began a reconsideration of the purposes and procedures of the selection of the Notable Books, the first step being revision of the Manual. With the merger of RSD and ASD in 1972, the Notable Books Council became a committee of the Reference and Adult Services Division. (Condensed and updated from “The Notable Books Project, 1044-55; Summary by S. Janice Kee, prepared January 1956.”)

Council Operations: The operations of the Council have undergone subtle changes during the 1990’s. Meetings are now limited to regular ALA conference dates; the 12-member Council no longer relies upon participating libraries for input; a publicity subcommittee has been established in order to further recognition and use of the Notable Book designation; and, Literary Tastes, an author event and book signing that takes place at the ALA Annual Conference. The Council enjoys enthusiastic support of most major publishers in providing review copies of books for Council members.

In 1991 the Notable Books Council came under the aegis of Collection Development and Evaluation Section (CODES) following the restructuring of RASD (now RUSA). The Council reports to the Chair of CODES rather than directly to the Division President or RUSA Executive Director.

Submission: The Notable Books Council considers titles based on stellar reviews published in standard library reviewing sources and other authoritative sources. While unsolicited titles will be accepted, the committee is under no obligation to consider them. For further information, please contact the Committee ChairVictoria Caplinger (victoria.capl@gmail.com).

The Lists

  • “Behold the Dreamers: A Novel” by Imbolo Mbue (Random House, a division of Penguin Random House)
    A Cameroonian family struggles to achieve the American dream during the Great Recession.
  • “Christodora: A Novel” by Tim Murphy (Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
    A powerful narrative about the impact of HIV and AIDS on individual lives, the activist community that developed in response, and the ways that the virus reverberates through decades and generations.
  • “Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: A Novel” by Max Porter (Graywolf Press)
    A surreal and poetic look at a time in life when nothing feels quite right–the time after losing someone you love. What’s real? What’s imagined?
  • “Homegoing: A Novel” by Yaa Gyasi (Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House)
    A dual history of two countries and the descendants of two half-sisters–one sold into slavery in the United States, the other remaining in Ghana.
  • “I’m Thinking of Ending Things: A Novel” by Iain Reid (Scout Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
    Things are not as they seem as a couple ponders the meaning of it all on an eerie road trip to nowhere.
  • “Missile Paradise: A Novel” by Ron Tanner (Ig Publishing)
    Drama and satirical humor intertwine to create an insightful story of regret, exposing American privilege and its effects on the Marshallese people.
  • “The Nix: A Novel” by Nathan Hill (Borzoi Books, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House)
    When his absent mother gets arrested for an activist crime, a half-hearted college professor (who spends more time gaming than working) undertakes an offbeat voyage of self-discovery.
  • “The Sport of Kings: A Novel” by C. E. Morgan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
    A Kentucky horse farmer breeds thoroughbreds, but his focus on controlling the outcomes of life, both equine and human, has far-reaching consequences.
  • “To the Bright Edge of the World: A Novel” by Eowyn Ivey (Little, Brown, a division of Hachette Book Group)
    From the wildly adventurous story in the Alaskan frontier to the innovative presentation on the pages, this historical novel blends folklore, science, feminism, and the new art of photography.
  • “The Underground Railroad” Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House)
    A shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share, with characters as fully realized as the train that carries them to “freedom.”
  • “An Unrestored Woman” by Shobha Rao (Flatiron Books)
    Women recover–or lose themselves–amidst the backdrop of war, power, and politics after the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan.
  • “The Unseen World” by Liz Moore (W.W. Norton)
    When she loses her father to Alzheimer’s disease, young Ada Sibelius becomes aware of how little she truly knows about him. From Turing to the next incarnation of Second Life, this character-driven novel is part mystery and part meditation on humanity.
  • “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Frans de Waal (W.W. Norton)
    Different species illuminate how we can learn from their natural intelligence, instead of imposing limits based on human perspective.
  • “At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails” by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press)
    A heady mix of biography, philosophy, and social history (with drinks!).
  • “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America” by Patrick Phillips (W.W. Norton)
    The expulsion of the entire African American community from Forsyth County, GA in 1912 established it as a white-only county, a condition which persisted into the 1980s with the support of local officials.
  • “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland” by Dan Barry (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
    Spanning decades, a group of men with intellectual disabilities, marginalized by society, work tirelessly in a turkey processing plant in Iowa under exploitive conditions.
  • “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond (Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House)
    Told through the painful struggles of individual families, this insightful ethnographic study elevates housing insecurity as a leading social justice issue.
  • “The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship” Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice” by Patricia Bell-Scott (Alfred A. Knopf, a division for Penguin Random House)
    The correspondence of two trailblazing women embodies the tension between the need for immediate action on civil rights versus the political philosophy of picking one’s battles.
  • “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
    A cancer physician and researcher uses his family history to frame the story of genetics, in all its danger and wonder.
  • “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly (William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
    The compelling narrative of the unsung heroines who helped us win World War II and reach the stars. Read the movie.
  • “In the Darkroom” by Susan Faludi (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt)
    A feminist writer’s investigation into her parent leads to an examination of our contemporary ideas of national and individual identity, gender, and family.
  • “Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams” by Louisa Thomas (Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House)
    A nuanced portrait of a multi-talented and widely traveled woman, often overshadowed by other members of America’s first political dynasty.
  • “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life” by Ruth Franklin (Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton)
    From early feminism to Tarot cards, reluctant polyamory to motherhood to drug use, this complex writer is compassionately portrayed.
  • “Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution” by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House)
    The grueling course of the Revolutionary War tested its generals harshly, leading one of them to abandon the cause.
  • “Cannibal” by Safiya Sinclair (University of Nebraska Press)
    Sharp observations on our off-kilter world will spark your emotions while engaging your mind.
  • “The Rain in Portugal: Poems” by Billy Collins (Random House, division of Penguin Random House)
    Dealing with ordinary life, death, and language, this collection is thoughtful, witty, and lyrical.