In early 2016, I set off (like a crazy person) to read every Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner from present to past. I finished last week – exactly hundred years since Earnest Poole won the first award for “His Family.” To accomplish this tall task, I raided the New York Public Library system. Most of the books were available. But as I delved into the deeper decades, some books became harder to get my hands on. Shocker. So I bought a Kindle for the ones that were only in eBook form. As a last resort, I eBayed rare leather-bound copies with built-in bookmarks and gold-tipped pages. In total, this Pulitzer Project required 33 months, a few hundred dollars and about a 1000 hours to complete the task.
1945 – A Bell for Adano – John Hersey.
A story of perseverance over the Fascists in a small Italian town.
1940 – The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck.
I refused to read this in high school (along with every other assigned book). Reading it now, it’s depressing yet uplifting. Descriptive yet efficient. The last few pages are surprising and more emotional than any other book on this list. Also, it’s about conquering the American Frontier – which is my favorite theme that pops up in many great novels on the list (1950’s “The Way West” by A. B. Guthrie Jr., 1959’s “The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters” by Robert Lewis Taylor and 1986’s “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurty).
1937 – Gone With The Wind – Margaret Michell.
Perhaps you’ve heard of this one. Scarlett and Rhett are the best romantic duo in American fiction history. It touches on everything. Romance. War. KKK. Progress. Slavery. Great dialogue. Classic and unforgettable. This was one of many books that I’d call ‘soap opera novels’ – centered around strong yet flawed female protagonists. Others worth reading are 1942’s “In This Our Life” by Ellen Glascow and 1931’s “Years of Grace” by Margaret Ayer Barnes.
1928 – Bridge of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilder.
The story opens in 1714, as the finest bridge in all Peru collapses and five people plunge to their death. The rest of the novel tells the stories of each of these people that led up to that day of demise. Very conceptual and great storytelling.
1918 – His Family – Earnest Poole.
The first winner and very deserving. Roger must raise his three daughters by himself in early 20th Century New York City. Sounds fun, right?
So what are best novels on this best-of list? Gun to my head, here are my absolute favorites. The best books all come from the first and last few decades. What’s up with that, 1940s-1990s?
5. 1940 Grapes and Wrath (mentioned above)
4. 1937 Gone with the Wind (mentioned above)
3. 2003 Middlesex
Strange, some might say controversial, but progressive and solid storytelling.
2. 2001 Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
If you work in a creative industry, you’ll relate. It’s about identifying and following your passion.
1. 1990 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
Sexually graphic, coming of age. NYC based. Wonderful read. It’s articulate, culturally relevant, amusing and a book about the American Dream that most people have never heard of.
So that’s it. I’m done. Now I need a new hobby. Maybe I’ll finally finish my own book. Or, I’ll just eat potato chips and binge on whatever I can find on Netflix. Who knows.