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This Utahn has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — ogle his book collection and share your favorite

First Published      Last Updated Apr 15 2016 06:43 pm

Books » Retired BYU professor is on the verge of completing goal of reading every Pulitzer-winning novel.

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."

(Want to start your own Pulitzer goal? Here's how to get started.)

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.

'Whole[some] atmosphere' • In his 1904 will establishing his namesake prizes, Joseph Pulitzer said an award should be given to the novel that best presented the "whole atmosphere of American life, and the higher standard of American manners and manhood."

But when Nicholas Butler — president of Columbia University, which administers the prize — presented the plan for the Pulitzers in 1915, he added a syllable, specifying the American atmosphere portrayed be "wholesome."

Jurors felt hamstrung by that requirement, according to Pulitzer historian John Hohenberg. In 1920, English professor Stuart Sherman wrote to the group's chairman, "We ought not to crown a licentious work, but I don't believe we should hold off till a novel appears fit for a Sunday School library."

No prize was awarded that year, an occurrence that would be repeated 11 times during the history of the category.

The moral parameter also rankled authors, perhaps none more than Sinclair Lewis, whose novels satirizing the hypocrisies of small towns and middle-class Americans found favor with Pulitzer jurors but lacked wholesomeness. In 1921, the Pulitzer advisory board overruled the three-member jury that had recommended Lewis' "Main Street" and gave the prize to "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton.

In 1922, jurors knew they'd have another uphill battle with Lewis' best-selling "Babbitt" and instead recommended, "without enthusiasm," the prize be given to "One of Ours."

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Pick Your Pulitzer

Tell the Tribune: What’s your favorite winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?

This package is part of coverage supported by a grant to The Salt Lake Tribune by the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. This year-long project in Utah is a collaboration between The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah Humanities, Utah Public Radio and KCPW.

Diverse voices?

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.

The prize still “celebrates distinctly American voices,” notes Siân Griffiths, director of creative writing at Weber State University, “and hopefully is getting more inclusive of the diversity those voices. I think it’s getting on people’s radar that we need to be looking at diverse voices.”

She points to Toni Morrison’s 1988 win as an important moment in the Pulitzer Prizes. “ ‘Beloved’ was super innovative — that one takes on the history of race in America in a way that few books ever have.”

Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won 20 years later, also “makes a lot of innovative moves,” Griffiths says, “and breaks down some racial stereotypes. He produced some wonderful characters that readers can connect with.”

Griffiths doesn’t have a prediction for the 2016 prize, but she says Louise Erdrich, a finalist in 2009, is “an oversight” and hopes the Ojibwe author of more than 20 works will eventually win the main prize.

“It’s a good thing that [the Pulitzer] has evolved over time. We’re constantly in a state of evolution and it’s good that the prize moves with that,” she says.

What kind of writing wins Pulitzers?

“If a writer wins the Pulitzer, it’s going to bring new readers to their work, and any writer is hoping to find an audience for their work,” says Siân Griffiths, director of creative writing at Weber State University. “On the other hand, there are a lot of writers who are interested in more avant garde work, breaking down some of the old ideas of how a novel should be constructed, for whom the Pulitzer is less impactful.”

Those experimental books tend to find more favor in the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Awards, whereas “Pulitzer-winning books tend to be books that will connect to a fairly large audience,” she says.

Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” which won the 2015 Pulitzer, was hugely successful even before it won the prize — something that was a bit surprising, Griffiths says, as “Doerr’s previous work had really flown under the radar. He focused on creating beautiful sentences, which doesn’t necessarily translate to popular success.”

But Doerr apparently hit upon the magic formula with “All the Light We Cannot See,” which, Griffiths says, had the “plot and strong characters that did connect to people, and retained beautiful sentences.”