ALL RIGHT NOW

Welcome to the Club

Meet the woman who reads (most of) the books Oprah then recommends to you.

July 8, 2024

Reading time min

Leigh Newman at a desk with a coffee cup on a table and a globe and bookshelf in the background

Photography by Joe McNally

It was January 2023 when Leigh Newman, ’93, first opened an advance copy of the novel The Covenant of Water. She was searching for one more book, in her relentless quest for a perfect pick, out of the millions published each year, to recommend as reading material for her famous boss, Oprah Winfrey. 

The Covenant of Water, by Stanford professor of medicine Abraham Verghese, seemed like a long shot, says Newman, an award-winning author and essayist herself. She notes that the multigenerational family saga set in India weighs in at a hefty 736 pages. She cracked it open anyway, read the first 200 pages, then set it down on her dining room table and walked away. Still, that first line, “She is twelve years old, and she will be married in the morning,” lingered.

Newman had recently landed a new job as books editor for Oprah Daily, the multimedia successor to O, the Oprah Magazine. Part of her job is to curate books to share with Winfrey as potential selections for Oprah’s Book Club. So, essentially, Newman is the woman behind the woman who influences the literary tastes of millions.

“To be clear, Oprah picks her own books,” Newman says. “She’s the best reader I’ve ever met. My job is finding that perfect book that she will love.” That means weeding through the thousands of advance copies sent to the Oprah organization, then speed reading the most likely choices at a rate of six to 10 per week. (“I’m an exceptionally fast reader,” Newman says. “Terrifyingly fast.”) Every so often, she sends Winfrey the books she believes in, books she can’t put down, the ones that move her—sometimes a handful, sometimes just one—then keeps her fingers crossed. 

 “We shoot for about five picks a year, but it varies,” Newman says. “There’s no system. If I really love a book, I’ll just send that and say, ‘This book is spectacular. Please stop everything and read it.’ It’s the dream job of my life. Because I love books, I can’t think of a better job in the world.”

The journey that brought Newman to this position began three decades ago, when she graduated from Stanford with a double major in economics and English, then moved to New York to become a writer. 

‘I do think I know Miss Oprah’s taste in books. I think she likes books that have a classic element, that are timeless. Books that have a beautifully written sentence.’

“I love to write, so I’ve luckily made my living off of writing and editing since I was 21,” she says. She started out working for Doubleday Publishing and Reader’s Digest, and then earned an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2006. For about 10 years, she worked as a travel reporter, swimming with dolphins in the Galapagos and tracking tigers in Nepal. After her second child was born, she switched editorial gears again, publishing essays and short stories in  the New York Times, Harper’s, and the Paris Review, among others. From 2011 to 2018, she did a stint working for the Oprah Winfrey Network as the deputy editor of its website. She didn’t work directly with Winfrey, she says, but she gained an understanding of how Oprah’s Book Club worked and what its membership wanted in a website. In 2013, she published a memoir, Still Points North, about her parents’ divorce and growing up in Alaska, and in 2022, she came out with a book of short stories, Nobody Gets Out Alive, which was longlisted for the National Book Award. 

“When I found out I was longlisted, I was in a chair getting my hair done,” Newman says. “I’m, like, crying and trying to explain why I’m crying. All these people are looking at me like I’m crazy. I’ve got the tinfoil in my hair.”

Today, in addition to her role at Oprah Daily, Newman teaches creative writing to MFA students and spends her mornings working on a novel. It’s this experience as a writer that Winfrey makes note of.

Leigh Newman on a bed with two dogs

“As an author herself, with a keen eye for words that resonate, Leigh is an ideal person to have in this position, helping me curate the best books for our audience,” Winfrey says via email. “Sometimes her tastes are quirkier than mine, but we always align on what makes sense for engaging, stimulating, and inspiring readers.”

Since Winfrey launched the phenomenon now recognized worldwide as Oprah’s Book Club in 1996, it’s become “arguably the most influential book club in the world,” according to the New York Times. Reese Witherspoon’s and Jenna Bush Hager’s clubs have made inroads, as has the crowdsourced newcomer #booktok, with 200 billion views on TikTok. But Oprah’s is still the elusive endorsement publishers and authors dream about, says Krishan Trotman, vice president and publisher of the Legacy Lit imprint at Hachette Book Group.

“We can’t predict it,” Trotman says, adding that she is still waiting for one of the books she has published to be picked. “You just sort of have to hope.”

Winfrey introduced the club on The Oprah Winfrey Show with The Deep End of the Ocean by newcomer novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard. The book jumped from 14th to 1st on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction (Mitchard’s only book to have nabbed the top spot), selling more than 3 million copies, and was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Subsequent club picks have ranged from classic novels by Charles Dickens to buzzy bestsellers like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which has sold more than 4 million copies. 

The book club has gone through a couple of transitions: In 2002, after a 14-month hiatus, Winfrey resurrected the club with East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Class of 1923, and went from recommending a new book every month to a few times a year, and in 2012, the year after her TV show ended its 25-season run, she relaunched the club online. These days, she waits for the right book, Newman says. Newman’s job, as she sees it, is helping find that singular choice that meets the Winfrey criteria—a high bar, she says.

“I do think I know Miss Oprah’s taste in books,” Newman says. “I think she likes books that have a classic element, that are timeless. Books that have a beautifully written sentence. We’re looking for a wonderful, compelling story that has a lot of emotional stakes in it, a lot of heart. It’s not just written to be smart. It’s not just written to be a good story. There’s some deeper meaning.”

Winfrey’s been so enthralled by the book, she’s handed it out to strangers at the beach and produced a six-part podcast talking about the book with Verghese.

Newman is proud to say that during 2023, her first year on the job, she recommended four of the five Oprah picks: Bittersweet by Susan Cain, a nonfiction book on sadness; Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward, ’99, MA ’00, a novel that tells the story of an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War and that Oprah calls “a vital work for our culture”; Wellness by Nathan Hill, a “hilarious and tender exploration of love, marriage, life hacks, and technology”; and, for the 101st pick, The Covenant of Water. (The first title of 2023 was Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano and was given to Winfrey by Creative Artists Agency before Newman was hired. In 2024, Winfrey selected The Many Lives of Mama Love by Lara Love Hardin. “Someone had sent it to her,” Newman says. “We don’t know who. She read it and sent it to me. I loved it. She did too. And it was our first pick of the year.”)

Newman had returned to The Covenant of Water after that first try, still thinking: “This isn’t a pick for us. I’ll just read a little bit more.” But at about 500 pages in, she knew the novel was meant for Oprah’s Book Club, so she sent it along. It didn’t take Winfrey nearly as long, Newman says. She knew by page 17. Winfrey’s been so enthralled by the book, she’s handed it out to strangers at the beach and produced a six-part podcast talking about the book with Verghese.

Inspired by stories from Verghese’s maternal ancestors, The Covenant of Water introduces Big Ammachi, matriarch of a Christian family in Kerala, India, then follows three generations of her family from 1900 to 1977 through mysterious drownings, afflictions, colonial­ism, and independence. “It’s one of the best books I’ve read in my entire life,” Winfrey says on her website. “It’s epic. It’s transportive. Many moments during the read I had to stop and remember to breathe. I couldn’t put the book down until the very last page. It was unputdownable!”

As is tradition, Winfrey announced the book’s selection in a personal phone call to the book’s author, surprising Verghese about a month before publication. (Newman arranges the calls with the publishers.)

“I didn’t believe it at first,” says Verghese, who was working in his home office in Menlo Park when the phone rang around 10:30 a.m. one day in April 2023. “I answered the phone and this voice said, ‘Hi, this is Oprah.’ It sounded like her voice, you know, everyone knows that voice, but I thought someone was pulling my foot. 

“We talked for about 45 minutes, and I could tell this was no routine call. She was deeply moved by the book, told me that it was in the top three books she had ever read! We talked about the characters—Big Ammachi and Baby Mol, in particular—and talked about the struggles I had over a decade to bring this to light. There were times during the call that I know I teared up listening to her, and I suspect she did. It was a dream come true.”

Meanwhile, Newman continues to plow through books, chasing the stuff of Winfrey’s—and authors’ and publishers’— dreams. “I don’t always finish all of them,” she confesses. Two she did: the latest Oprah’s Book Club selections, Long Island by Colm Tóibín and Familiaris by David Wroblewski. Ditto some additional compelling reads that she can’t yet divulge. “There are new picks coming out that I found for her,” she says. “But that is all still a secret.”


Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at traciew@stanford.edu.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.