I grew up reading, and my favorites were always the classics of literature: Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo and Little Women. Much of the recent fiction that I tried to read as a teenager or young adult paled in comparison. Many times, I would find myself left with little but a sense of vague disappointment when I shut a more recently-written book for the final time. However, I now know that the problem was not with all recent fiction, but in my luck at finding “the good stuff”.
Every year, thousands and thousands of books are published—and few of us want to waste what precious time we devote to reading on something mediocre. So, how do you make your decision? Do you rely solely on word of mouth? Recommendations from a certain friend? Let your book group decide for you? Or is it just luck (or book providence, as some of us like to say)?
My advice to friends who ask me the question, “What should I read?” is this: Read the Pulitzers. The Pulitzer Prizes have a reputation for being the country’s most prestigious awards and as the most sought-after accolades in journalism, letters and music. The formal announcement of the prizes are made each April and were established in 1904 when innovative newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer made provision in his will for the establishment of the Pulitzer Prizes as an incentive to excellence. A work of literature can be considered for the Pulitzer Prize when it has been authored by an American author, and preferably deals with some aspect of American life. Most of the books who win the Pulitzer Prize have not been on the bestseller lists, at least before winning the award. The issue of taste in reading material always makes for a lively debate, but in my mind, this fact only increases the value of the Prize, since I am unable to stomach most of the books on those bestseller lists.
Past winners of recent years have been excellent, and have given me many hours of reading enjoyment, as well as spurring me on to growth and change, as we all know good literature is capable of doing. Interested in all the recent talk about immigration policy? Check out the luminous short story collection Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Short on plot but long on beauty and insight, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson is a great choice. If stories about small-town life are more your style, Empire Falls by Richard Russo is brimming with humor and pathos. Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon cover controversial issues in the lives of their characters with clarity and compassion. The Known World by Edward P. Jones and this year’s winner, March by Geraldine Brooks are both set in the Civil War era, but have surprisingly relevant insights to make in our spiritual lives today.
So, my friends, the next time you find yourself wandering aimlessly through the dark and dusty maze that comprises your local library or bookstore, look for a Pulitzer. You may pick up a soon-to-be classic work of literature that leaves you feeling anything but disappointed when you reach the final page.