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."