August is known in the book industry as the "dead zone," when agents and editors take their vacations ahead of one of the busiest months of the publishing calendar, September. But there are no summer doldrums this year: with movies and new television on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, books have remained one of the few forms of entertainment able to proceed relatively unaffected — and they're successfully filling the void.
On Tuesday alone, a number of notable releases hit the (virtual) shelves, including Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson. "It's an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far," raved The New York Times. Oprah Winfrey, in announcing Tuesday that Caste is her new book club selection, told CBS This Morning that "all of humanity needs to read this" and that it might be "the most important book" she's ever picked.
On the fiction front, also out Tuesday is Luster, the debut by Raven Leilani, described by BuzzFeed News as "the next great millennial novel." The book has been gaining buzz for weeks — "doesn't it feel like everyone is raving about this debut?" The Millions wrote — but Luster stands out for "the quality of the writing itself." Having read an early copy, I can attest: It deserves all the hype, and more.
Other late summer books have also earned raves — the memoir Wandering in Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins, Laura van den Berg's short fiction collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, the novel Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, the memoir Memorial Drive by poet Natasha Trethewey — which makes it tempting to correlate the extraordinary summer publishing is having with the pandemic. That might be a stretch though: while some release dates have been moved up, most August releases were set pre-pandemic.
More likely, the lack of noise coming from the other usual spheres of entertainment means the major releases in publishing especially stand out. As Stephanie Meyer, the author of Midnight Sun, a new Twilight novel out Tuesday, offered to the probing New York Times about why this book, why now: "Because I finished it." Plus, "I am really excited when I have a book to read right now, because there's not much else that's exciting."