Around 10 minutes into my interview with Jenna Bush Hager, I make a careless mistake: I assume her new Today show book club isn’t merely a one-woman band. “You say ‘You guys,’ but you really are just talking about one person — me!” she responds, laughing. “Reese Witherspoon was on the show the other day, and we were talking about it. She’s like, ‘I have a whole team, Jenna!’ The problem is, I definitely need to read the whole book before I recommend it — and I’m a pretty picky reader.”
To assume Hager comes armed with a screening crew is to miss what has made her book club such a breakout success. Read With Jenna is but the latest literary recommendation operation launched by a major public figure — see everyone from Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey to Emma Watson and Sarah Jessica Parker — and, collectively, these celeb-led groups have transformed the publishing industry in a crucial moment, spotlighting distinctive titles for large fan bases amid the distractions of Netflix and social media and our ongoing political nightmare. But Hager is demonstrating an individual power not seen since Oprah’s glory days.
Read With Jenna began on a monthly basis in March, when Hager was announced as cohost of Today’s fourth hour. Half of its four selections are debuts by women of color, and none lean commercial; all have been catapulted to instant best-seller status. For context: On the morning of May 1, both Hager and Witherspoon announced new picks, Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man and Tembi Locke’s From Scratch, respectively. Within hours, Hager’s choice ranked among Amazon’s top five best-sellers, while Witherspoon’s hadn’t cracked the top 50. (One reason: Today averages over 4 million viewers a morning, an unrivaled platform.)
The daughter of former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, Hager, 37, says she was a born reader. She grew up without a TV in her room — “The book was the only choice!” — and vividly recalls her mother reading Little Women to her and her twin sister, Barbara, when they were 5 or 6 years old. Other preadulthood obsessions include The Baby-Sitters Club and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye; she counts Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, and Hanya Yanagihara (author of A Little Life) as all-time favorites.
Hager brings a profound, lifelong love of literature, and manages to hit that sweet spot of quality and accessibility. She’d established herself as a trusted recommendation source on Today in the year prior to her hosting gig, spearheading a summer book club, with Tommy Orange’s award-winning first novel, There There, as the featured title. “We did it as a one-off, but then it was like, ‘Why aren’t we doing this year-round?’” she says.
Hager’s inaugural monthly pick was The Last Romantics, by Tara Conklin, a tender story of family and betrayal that spans decades; the book promptly shot up to No. 6 on the New York Times best-seller list after not making the list at all the previous week. Now Read With Jenna is emerging as publishing’s most coveted seal of approval.
Credit must go to Hager’s thorough process: She’s reading six to seven books a month, and that’s not counting the many she starts before realizing they’re not a good fit. She focuses mostly on new, unknown authors, and she agonizes over delivering something fresh without alienating her followers. “I’m not recommending to one best friend,” she says. “I’m recommending to this huge audience of people that trust us and love our show. That puts pressure on me.”
Hager also wants to highlight underrepresented cultures, while making sure her choices are universal in scope: “We’ve chosen books that are about identity and family, about finding our own voices.” Her greatest success so far — and personal favorite — came with A Woman Is No Man. Where some celebs were picking breezier reads to hail the beginning of summer, Hager turned toward a blistering exploration of three generations of Palestinian-American women, unfolding in lyrical but demanding prose.
“[It] was really life-changing for me,” she says. Hager was evidently not alone. The week after she selected it, the book sold more than 10 times what it’d sold the week before — and landed on the New York Times best-seller list. It’s still selling strong. “It’s a brave choice because it’s not an easy book,” says Doug Jones, deputy publisher of HarperCollins, which released the novel. “It’s very different, say, than some of the Reese picks. It’s not a beach read.” Hager puts it differently: “We should take back the term ‘beach read’ and have it mean anything that somebody reads compulsively on the beach.”
This year, no other book club has come close to Read With Jenna in sales influence. Hager is now bringing other readers in to assist, but remains less “organized” than Witherspoon, who recently told Hager she’s locked down picks through January 2020. (“I went into a tailspin and started reading like a crazy person,” Hager says of her reaction.) Still, her genuine love of reading is evident throughout our conversation. As our talk winds down, I tell Hager she’s answered all my questions. Barely a second passes before she turns one back on me: “Do you have any book recommendations?” Off we go.
Be sure to watch Today on Monday, July 1, where the next Read With Jenna pick will be revealed during the 8 o’clock hour.