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This Utahn has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

12 March 2016

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.

. . . .

 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.

. . . .

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

Books in General

13 Comments to “This Utahn has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel”

  1. It won a prize and thus was worthy of my time, and musty hard to find books are the best. Turn away from those ereaders and the easily found drivel that seems to be made for them.

    Put down your 50 shades and adult coloring books and walk with me into the past — which has to be better than the now — as it always has been and always will be …

    Sorry for the holier than thou, but it seemed to fit the link I friend had sent me:

    She was pointing out the upper left: Christian ‘prophet’ loses his buttocks to a hungry lion while trying to prove God would save him.

    At least the poor lion found a way to get the guy to stop preaching at him …

    • Allen,

      fit the link I friend had sent me

      I assumed that was a typo, but it sparked in me an idea for a science fiction short story and a title: iFriend.

      • Yeah, me excuse for a brain sends the wrong letters to the fingers sometimes — sometimes entire words!

        Yes, ‘link a friend sent me’ …

        You have to watch out for those Ifiends though … 😉

      • A tense romantic thriller about a married man’s relationship with Siri: iOtherWoman.

  2. Having lived in Utah off and on for eight years, I can say without a doubt, Utahans like to read.

  3. I’m a little surprised “Obscure dude reads obscure books” is a news story, even in Utah.

  4. Not to be a spoilsport, but Abebooks lists 138 copies of that obscure Pulitzer winner, “Scarlet Sister Mary” by Julia Peterkin.

    I discovered this without standing up, never mind searching musty bookstores all over America. We live in wonderful times.

    • I watched the movie version of Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” last night. The plot is intrepid symbologist racing around Rome from statue to statue; he has to find five statues within six hours or a bomb goes off.

      Nowadays he could have just used Google.

  5. The Pulitzer has since forever been a small tribal group that award one another and ‘friends of friends’ etc. It has been a chameleon in its choices, tipped over into only one literati-socalled kind of writing as its ‘commitees’ see it. If y ou could see the ‘family tree’ of nepotism, you would, in our time, lob it into the same cat as nyt bestseller list which also is small tribe, used to be honest, now is mechanical woo woo.

    The Pulitzers in recent time for journalism/ investigative reporting, often hold still… as honest [though there have been some scams]. But then, newspapers esp are often struggling beached whales now, and even a Pulitzer seemingy cant turn corporate minds to ongoing, multiprojects –consistently no matter how expensive on the front end– re investigative reporting

  6. This is a lovely article. Nice change from screaming arguments or things that have to bleed or they don’t lead.

    I don’t see it as preaching at all… It’s just gently saying that there is room for the past as well as the present. You don’t have to tear down every beautiful old building in town just because you like modern architecture better. We can honor our history as well as eagerly embrace our present and our future. No need to take sides. I love old books AND reading on my phone, and publish Kindle books.

  7. It took him 12 years to read 86 books?


    I went through about 30 books last month. Sorry, none of them were Pulitzer Prize winning books but they were all enjoyable. I learned a lot from the craft books, too!

    My oldest is in 3rd grade and she’s probably read more than 86 books. She’s voracious.

  8. I read most of the Pulitzer winners myself, up to the year in which I was reading, while on a quest to improve my writing and cultural literacy. At the time, my favorite obscure jewel was Now in November, 1935, which was out of print when I went hunting for it. (Thank you, interlibrary loans). Now it’s easy to find.

    Later in life, I got to know someone on the Pulitzer jury, which lowered my respect for the prize quite a bit. (You really do not want to know how sausages are made.)

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