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Oprah Winfrey picks Colson Whitehead’s latest, ‘The Undergound Railroad,’ for her book club

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey, shown at the recent Essence Festival, has selected Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Undergound Railroad” for her Book Club.
(Paras Griffin / Getty Images)

Oprah’s Book Club pick is Colson Whitehead’s new novel “The Underground Railroad.”

In an announcement video on the Oprah Book Club website, Winfrey says, “Oh, have I found a great book! ... This book has kept me up at night, had my heart in my throat, almost afraid to turn the next page.”

Winfrey is making the case to her fans that they should invest in a literary read. Whitehead was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his novel “John Henry Days” and was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2002.

Whitehead, who has been keeping the decision secret since he learned of it in April, described his reaction to getting picked in an interview on “CBS This Morning.” “I try to keep a downcast demeanor and depressive outlook on life, but the last four months ... I’ve just been in a good mood,” he said. “I’m at the supermarket and the cashier is like, ‘Paper or plastic?’ and I’m like, ‘Oprah’s Book Club.’ Or I’m in a taxi and they’re like, ‘Where you going, bud?’ and I’m like, ‘Oprah’s Book Club.’” 

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Author Colson Whitehead
Author Colson Whitehead
(Erin Patrice O’Brien / Doubleday )

The selection, Winfrey’s first in 2016, thrusts what was anticipated to be one of the biggest books of the fall into the spotlight six weeks early. The novel was scheduled for release on Sept. 13, but publisher Doubleday brought it to stores Tuesday to coincide with Winfrey’s selection. It went on sale Tuesday in brick and mortar retailers and online.

Publishers accommodate Winfrey’s schedule because her book club can make a huge difference in book sales. Some of the books that Winfrey has championed that have become bestsellers include “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle and Janet Fitch’s “White Oleander.”

This is the first pick for Oprah’s Book Club since last year, when the media mogul selected Cynthia Bond’s novel “Ruby” as her latest recommendation.

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“The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s sixth novel. It follows a young slave named Cora who works in a Georgia cotton plantation about 10 years before the Civil War. She and a fellow slave make a daring escape from the plantation via the Underground Railroad, which, in Whitehead’s telling, is literally a series of below-ground tunnels.

Whitehead talked about the origin of “The Underground Railroad” on CBS. “I think a lot of people when they first hear about the Underground Railroad, when they’re a kid, they think it’s a literal underground subway, and then you hear ... it’s not, and you’re sort of disappointed,” he said. “I was thinking, what if every state our protagonists go through as he or she goes north is a different state of American possibility. And so it became sort of a ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ type structure.”

Whitehead, a New York native, has received critical acclaim for his novels ever since his 1999 debut, “The Intuitionist.” His most recent novel was “Zone One”; since then he’s also written a nonfiction chronicle of playing poker in Las Vegas, “The Noble Hustle.”

The book club officially kicks off on Aug. 9, when the September issue of O: The Oprah Magazine goes on sale, which features Winfrey’s interview with Whitehead. Readers will be able to keep up with the book club on Winfrey’s website as well as on social media with the hashtag #OprahsBookClub.

ALSO:

Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One”: Our review

Pocket Constitution becomes bestseller after Khizr Khan’s convention speech

Jeff VanderMeer on the beauty and weirdness of Florida

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