From The Salt Lake Tribune:
Browsing a favorite used-book store in Provo in 2004, Richard Isakson came across “One of Ours,” an unfamiliar novel by a familiar author.
With a World War I soldier in a doughboy helmet on the cover, the book seemed a far cry from Willa Cather’s Midwestern-set works like “O Pioneers!” Isakson, then a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, bought it — and loved it.
He noted it was heralded as “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” and, always hungry for more good books, checked the full list of winners. He found he had read some of them — “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Lonesome Dove” — but there were many more he’d never heard of.
So, “thinking that if they’d won that prize — which I consider to be the most prestigious award for fiction writers in the U.S. — that would be a book worth reading,” he printed a list and started searching and reading.
Now, 12 years and 86 books later, Isakson is finishing his last Pulitzer-winning novel, Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.”
The Pulitzer goal “shifted my reading focus,” he says. “It’s challenged me to read books that I might not’ve been drawn to, helped me discover books I had never known of.”
Isakson rattles off a dozen titles when he tries to name a favorite Pulitzer. “One of Ours” is certainly up there. The unassuming paperback that started it all, its pages having come unglued from the binding after much reading, now sits in pride of place atop a bookcase in Isakson’s Provo home. It’s one of two bookcases that house Isakson’s collection of every Pulitzer fiction winner from 1918 to 2015, many of them beautiful first editions.
Reading an antique book — with its thick paper, musty smell and inscriptions written by earlier owners — pulls him deeper into the story and the world it was written in, he says.
“Some people collect antiques, and they buy this little intricate glass thing and maybe they’ll put it on a shelf but nobody touches it,” Isakson says. “No one’s serving cookies on it. But with these books, I haven’t hesitated to read any of them, even the rare ones.”
His collection complete but for a space he’s left for the 2016 winner, which will be announced April 18 at 1 p.m. MT, all Isakson has to do now is wait.
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Fifty-five men and 30 women have been awarded the prize, the majority from the East Coast or the South. Though many of the winning novels are set outside the U.S., all of the authors have been American, to comply with Joseph Pulitzer’s original parameters.
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Hemingway did eventually receive the Pulitzer, in 1953 for “The Old Man and the Sea.” Much as the Oscar sometimes seems to be awarded in recognition of an actor’s body of work, the Pulitzer could represent the cumulative merit of an author’s works or serve as a “make-up,” Isakson says, for an earlier, better novel that was overlooked.
William Faulkner won twice, for “A Fable” and for “The Reivers,” which carry less name recognition than his “As I Lay Dying” or “The Sound and the Fury.” Upton Sinclair, most famous for “The Jungle” and “Oil!” — the loose basis of the film “There Will Be Blood” — won for “Dragons Teeth,” the third book in an 11-volume series, today available only used or via an ebook distributor that specializes in repackaging lost or out-of-copyright books.
Though one would think winning the Pulitzer guarantees your book will live forever, many of the winners from the 1920s and ’30s are long out of print and out of the consciousness of the literature community. Tracking them down was a feat, but it wasn’t a chore for Isakson and his wife, Marné, a longtime English teacher and perhaps an even more avid reader.
Armed with his list of winners and authors, they scoured bookstores across the state and country, from tiny towns in Colorado to San Francisco and Atlanta. Searching a used-book shop is a thrill Isakson likens to fishing — you’re always hoping the book you’ve been seeking is languishing in these stacks.
He read the winners in the order he could find them, so his quest was never hampered by an elusive title. He expanded his search to include better copies of Pulitzers he already owned, as well as other books by the winning authors.
“The real fun was finding a good edition that the bookstore didn’t appreciate” and paying under $10 for a book likely worth hundreds, Isakson says.
The older, hard-to-find Pulitzer winners often came with the biggest payoff, and not just when it came to bargains. The 1929 winner, “Scarlet Sister Mary” by Julia Peterkin, has been “absolutely forgotten, nobody seems to have read it,” Isakson says, but they both fell in love with the story of Mary, a black woman struggling with love, sin and limited choices in the post-slavery era, and have bought extra copies to pass along to others.
“It’s just beautifully written. The first paragraph just blew me away,” says Marné.
Lyrical writing is a must for her; she often reads aloud during long car trips. “It can’t just be a good story — I have to savor the language,” she says, citing “The Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Beloved” as some of her favorite Pulitzers.
Link to the rest at The Salt Lake Tribune