20 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners to read to complete your Reading Challenge

20 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners to read to complete your Reading Challenge

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.

First, the Pulitzer Prize winners. (Click here to read more about the Pulitzer.)

Series: Pulitzer Prize winners
Beloved

Beloved

Author:
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 →
March

March

I've been meaning to read this for years, but didn't realize until recently it won the Putlitzer! 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 →
Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove

Author:
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 →
Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies

Author:
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 →
The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries

Author:
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 →
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Author:
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 →
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Author:
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 →
Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

Author:
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 →
Washington: A Life

Washington: A Life

Author:
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 →
The Color Purple

The Color Purple

Author:
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 →

Next, the National Book Award winners. (Click here to read more about the National Book Award.)

Series: National Book Award winners
The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking

Author:
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 →
The Shipping News

The Shipping News

Author:
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 →
Holes

Holes

Author:
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 →
Head Off & Split: Poems

Head Off & Split: Poems

Author:
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 →
Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones

Author:
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 →
Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

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 →
The Spectator Bird

The Spectator Bird

Author:
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 →
The Complete Stories: Flannery O’Connor

The Complete Stories: Flannery O’Connor

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 →
Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming

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 →
The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

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 →

What are YOU reading for this category? 

P.S. The 2018 Reading Challenge is hitting the blog next week! To be notified when it drops, sign up for newsletter updates here.

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25 comments

  1. Jennifer N. says:

    I read Interpreter of Maladies for this challenge and I loved it so much I picked up Namesake, also by Jhumpa Lahiri, though I haven’t cracked the spine on that one. I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (which won the Pulitzer this year, as well as the National Book Award) and was blown away. I will say with The Underground Railroad, you have to be ready to suspend your disbelief. If you’re looking for a literal interpretation of the railroad, you’ll be disappointed.

  2. Melanie says:

    I read Lonesome Dove earlier this year, thanks to your recommendation. I’m a lifelong reader so this next statement carries a bit of weight–best book I’ve ever read. Ever. I’m not a western fan and it may be the only western I ever read but there are just no good words to describe it. The only way to describe it is just exquisite. I’ve recommended it to so many people.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I just finished reading this for the third time and oh my goodness, SO GOOD!!! I’ve never read another western but this is amazing. I think it’s mostly the characters for me; they’re so complex and flawed and real.

    • Melanie says:

      I need to take the plunge and start this one. It’s just so long…not that I have any fear of long books, it’s just that I have a pile from the library sitting on my dresser that I need to get through before I can invest weeks in a single book.

    • Casey says:

      I have this on my list and am wondering if the Audible version is good, or if I should read it on the page. I’ve really been getting into audiobooks this year. Has anyone tried the audiobook, and have some insight?

  3. Jeannine says:

    I just finished Empire falls by Richard Russo (2002 Pulitzer Prize winner).
    “Richard Russo – from his first novel, Mohawk, to his most recent, Straight Man -has demonstrated a peerless affinity for the human tragicomedy, and with this stunning new novel he extends even further his claims on the small-town, blue-collar heart of the country.”

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I read Olive Kitteridge for this category. I didn’t love My Name is Lucy Barton so I was hesitant going in, but ended up loving it. Lots of sentences I wanted to underline!

  5. Lisa White says:

    I read The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich for this category. Difficult subject, and really makes one think about plight of the indigenous people on the reservations today.

  6. Stacey says:

    I just want to recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. The audiobook of this title is so haunting and beautiful. This is easily my favorite read of the year. Ward turns very difficult, complex themes into poetry in novel form.

  7. I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2009 Pulitzer), The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2017 Pulitzer, 2016 National Book), and The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1999 Pulitzer). Didn’t necessarily mean to read 3 Pulitzers, but really enjoyed all 3, especially The Underground Railroad. And I’m waiting on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking to become available at the library. It’s nice to go back and read some of the older winners!

  8. Jo Yates says:

    I’ve started The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, National Book Award 2006. My dad remembers the Great Dust Storm of April 14, 1935, when he was a little boy in the Texas Panhandle.

  9. Melanie says:

    I’ve read some Flannery O’Connor and I appreciate her stories, but I don’t love them. But the cover of that book!

    If anyone is considering listening to the audio version of The Shipping News, beware! I unknowingly listened to a condensed version of the story. I don’t even know why they made condensed audio versions of novels; just read the full book already! (Also, the narrator was terrible.) Once I realized that the version I had listened to was condensed the choppiness of the story made so much more sense. Now I need to pick up a hard copy so that I can fill in the gaps.

  10. Kimi says:

    There are so many great choices on this list!
    The one I picked isn’t on it. I selected William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days:A Surfing Life for this category. I knew nothing of surfing or the author, and while it was a longer read, it was very good and very worth the time. For me, it was very nostalgic of that time and it brought back good memories.

  11. Carlyn says:

    I’ve read Holes by Louis Sanchar. It’s a delightful book that I would recommend to everyone. I really want to read March by Geraldine Brooks. I loved reading Little Woman and I hadn’t thought that there were spin off books.

  12. Melinda Malaspino says:

    I would add The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, To Kill A Mockingbird, and All The Light You Cannot See to my list of favorites.

  13. Beth says:

    I read Salvage the Bones. It is a story that sticks with you. I have to admit that I have tried Beloved several times and just can’t make it past the first 20 pages.

  14. DeNae says:

    Beloved remains my favorite book, and it is one that I come back to for comfort when life gets too hard. I first read it almost 20 years ago in a philosophy of literature class during my first year of college. I am so thankful I read it in that setting because I was guided through the book instead of trying to make my own way through it. It is haunting and beautiful and alive to me. There are so many good books on this list, both that I have read and that I want to read, but seeing Beloved at the top made my literary heart leap!

  15. Christine says:

    I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and it was absolutely beautiful. It was a slow, thoughtful kind of read that I know I’ll want to go back to again and again. I can’t wait to read her other books. Gilead won the Pulitzer in 2005.

  16. Pam says:

    I read “The Caine Mutiny” by Herman Wouk several months ago for this category. I’m a big fan of Wouk’s WW II pair (“Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance”), so I wanted to tackle this modern classic, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952. I agree with someone above — it’s great to read older prize-winning books. Especially ones that have stood the test of time and become part of a cultural canon, yet are very readable by today’s standards. Since then, I’ve also read “The Underground Railroad”. I think both books are worthwhile reads, with profound messages around big themes including the law, ethics and identity.

  17. Leslie says:

    I read March (in March!) for this category, and its staying power has been surprising. I think about the atmosphere and characters so often. Also, I read it after finishing Gone with the Wind, which was a really interesting contrast!

  18. I’m not doing the challenge, but I am reading All the King’s Men, which won the Pulitzer!

    I really liked March. My best friend the English professor sent me a signed copy one year. I think it started my serious love for Geraldine Brooks. She also sent me The Shipping News, but I couldn’t get into it.

    I’m also interested to see what you do with Salvage the Bones. I actually stopped reading it pretty far in, about halfway, because the HSP in me just couldn’t take it anymore.

  19. Britany says:

    I read The Color Purple by Alice Walker for this category and really enjoyed it. I love epistolary novels and had no idea this was one. I then promptly watched the movie to compare.

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