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The surprise on Oprah's best-books list

May 4, 2010 |  1:28 pm

The 10th anniversary edition of O, the Oprah Magazine includes a list of 10 books that rocked Oprah's decade. Eight of them are, as you might expect, selections from Oprah Winfrey's book club, including Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" in 2000 and Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth," a 2008 selection.

What about the other two? One is "Discover the Power Within You" by Eric Butterworth, a spiritual-self-help classic. It's a book that Oprah has cited as an influence in the past.

The other, more surprising selection is Edward P. Jones' "The Known World." Although Oprah had frequently selected novels for her book club, when "The Known World" came out, she didn't select it as a book club pick.

After years of singling out a new book almost every month -- almost all brand new works of fiction -- the book club was in a period of near-hibernation. A scuffle with novelist Jonathan Franzen, who expressed mixed feelings about Oprah's selection of his book "The Corrections," had led to the book club's brief hiatus.

When the book club started up again, it was a mere trickle -- just two books each during the years 2002 and 2003 -- and the focus shifted from new fiction to classics. This dismayed the publishing industry, which had seen Oprah's book club selections regularly hit bestseller lists.

When Jones' novel, a revelatory story of African Americans owning slaves in the pre-Civil War south, came out, the book club was in the middle of a run of books that included John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," "As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner and Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." It would be four more years -- when Oprah selected Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" in 2007 -- before contemporary fiction returned to her list.

Back in 2005, Oprah praised Jones' novel on her website, leading some to hope that she might begin selecting fiction again soon. Instead, that year she tried memoir -- James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" -- and we all know how that turned out.

Perhaps this recent commendation will help bring Jones' novel to the attention of Oprah's army of readers. It has been noticed elsewhere -- it won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Edward P. Jones in 2004. Credit: Reuters

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