The twelfth and final category for the 2017 Reading Challenge—for those of you who are stretching yourselves this year—is “a Putlitzer Prize or National Book Award winner.”
Readers, you could take this category in literally hundreds of directions, depending on whether you choose National Book or Pulitzer, and which category of award winner—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature … the options go on and on. You could choose a book that won the award this fall, or fifty years ago; one that many fellow readers are discussing right now, or one that changed the way readers thought about literature in the past.
This category provides a shortcut for readers wishing to choose to read books that will endure—books that make you think, that have staying power, that readers will still be reading and discussing in ten years, or thirty, or a hundred. There are exceptions throughout the years, sure, but a book found worthy of a Pulitzer or National Book Award is seldom forgotten, even decades later.
Today I’m sharing ten titles that won each award. Some are personal favorites, some are on my To Be Read list. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on these titles and what you are reading for this category in comments.
When I first read Pilgrim as a college freshman, I'd never encountered anything like Dillard’s genre-defying reflections on the changing seasons in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. (I talked about this as a life-changing book in the Ask Anne Anything episode of What Should I Read Next.) General nonfiction, 1975. More info →
This meticulously researched and superbly written nonfiction work tells the story of Thurgood Marshall and his crucial involvement in one of the most important and controversial Civil Rights cases of the 1950s. King's fascinating constellation of topics includes the Jim Crow South, Florida's citrus industry, the inner workings of the NAACP, the FBI, and Thurgood Marshall's legal career. General nonfiction, 2013. More info →
I read this for my 2016 Reading Challenge and LOVED it, even though I initially thought it didn't sound like the right book for me. The story revolves around a 3000 mile cattle drive from a dusty Texas border town to the unsettled lands of Montana in the 1880s. Essential reading not for Western-lovers only, but for all fiction-lovers. Fiction, 1986. More info →
Chernow can write. I'm currently making my way through Chernow's massive Hamilton biography—the one that inspired the musical—and his previous enormous historical biography about America's first president is next on my list. If you love Doris Kearns Goodwin, you'll love Chernow. Biography, 2011. More info →
This work from Harvard sociologist and MacArthur Genius grant recipient Desmond is one of the latest award winners. With painstaking detail, Desmond takes his reader into the heart of Milwaukee, illuminating current economic and sociological conditions through the lens of eight different families on the edge, and the conditions that are undoing them. Heartbreaking, powerful, eye-opening. General nonfiction, 2017. More info →
I love Lahiri. In this short story collection, Lahiri's characters tenuously navigate the divide between their old world and their new, and taken together, the collection highlights myriad aspects of the immigrant experience. Evocative, bittersweet, and lyrical. I loved this on audio, and it's less than 6 hours. Fiction, 2000. More info →
I've been meaning to read this for years, but didn't realize until recently it won the Pulitzer! In this historical novel, Geraldine Brooks takes her inspiration from Louisa May Alcott's beloved Little Women—with a twist. The "March" of her title is the absent father of Alcott's classic, who has left to serve the Union as a chaplain during the American Civil War. Fiction, 2006. More info →
This isn't an easy book to read (and if you struggle through the first half, you're not alone), but persevering readers will be rewarded with one of the most important and beautifully written multi-cultural historical novels in the American canon. I can't improve on the publisher's description, which says Beloved is "filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope." Fiction, 1988. More info →
I accidentally came home from a library book sale this year with two copies of The Stone Diaries, and I think it's a sign I need to read it, and soon. Shields adopts an unconventional narrative structure: this is the fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, who reflects on her life, from birth to death, with a great deal of self-awareness and insight; she sees her life as a series of "mini-lives," and in each, she must become a different version of herself. Fiction, 1995. More info →
In this epistolary novel, a young woman living in the South in the 1930s describes her life in a series of heartbreaking letters. But ultimately, redemption arrives in an unlikely form. A painful, beautiful book about the power of love. Fiction, 1983. More info →
This is such a fun story, no matter your age. Stanley Yelnats is a boy with a history of bad luck–all brought on by his "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather." Yelnats ends up at Camp Green Lake—a juvenile detention center, where there is no lake--and has to dig a giant hole every day in the hot sun. The boys soon discover there may be more to this hole-digging business than punishment. Young people's literature, 1998. More info →
Fun fact: in 2009, the National Book Foundation conducted a poll in which voters elected Flannery's work the best book to have win the National Book Award. Her award-winning volume includes thirty-one stories in all, including the classics Everything That Rises Must Converge, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and The River. O'Connor's work is weird, imaginative, grotesque, and unforgettable. Fiction, 1972. More info →
This is an incredible book, and a timely one. Coates frames this series of essays as a letter to his son, exploring what it means to be black in America, and how issues involving race have shaped and continue to shape the country in which he lives. Nonfiction, 2015. More info →
Forget everything you've heard about this being an "important" book. All you need to know is this story is fantastic, and it absolutely comes alive when read by the author herself. Woodson tells the story of her childhood, moving with her family (or part of it) from South Carolina to New York City and back again, sharing her observations through a young girl's eyes with a writer's sensibility. Young people's literature, 2014. More info →
A What Should I Read Next guest talked me into adding the paperback to my personal collection; I'm reading it myself for this category. The publisher calls this Pulitzer winner "a vigorous, darkly comic, and at times magical portrait of the contemporary North American family." Fiction, 1993. More info →
This book is Didion's account of year following her husband's death, but it's really about the many years of the life they lived together. Writing in real-time, she captures emotion on the page so well. I felt like this wasn't just an exploration of her own grief and mourning, but an inquiry into capital-case Grief and Mourning. So well done, and so worth reading (if a little tough to do so at times). Nonfiction, 2005. More info →
This one is a National Book Award AND Alex Award winner—that's an overlap you don't often see! I'm reading this now (because I couldn't decide which book to read for this category!) Incredible prose and a haunting story about a Southern family living in poverty against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. Fiction, 2011. Bonus pick: Ward's 2017 National Book Award Winner (Fiction) Sing, Unburied, Sing. More info →
Finney is a contemporary American poet and a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a group of black Appalachian poets. Politics are no stranger to her poetry, but in this, her latest collection, her activism moves to the forefront: Rosa Parks, Strom Thurmond, Condoleeza Rice, George Bush, and Hurricane Katrina all appear in this collection. Poetry, 2011. More info →
I picked this up after reading Stegner’s later novels Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose. I had to sit with it for weeks before I could begin to wrap my brain around what, exactly, Stegner was trying to say. Maybe that’s because the novel itself asks hard questions, and offers no easy answers. It’s a short read—only 224 pages—but if you’ve never read Stegner, I don’t recommend starting here. Pensive, wistful, thoughtful. Fiction winner, 1977. More info →
In this imaginative piece of historical fiction, the Underground Railroad of history becomes a subway—an actual locomotive, powered by coal and running on actual track below the surface. Whitehead drew inspiration from Gulliver's Travels and real-life heroine Harriet Jacobs for his story of Cora, a Georgia slave who sets out on a heroic quest to find freedom in the North. Fiction, 2016, AND a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. More info →