Creating The List
The decision to read a book published in each year I've been alive was only the beginning. The next task was infinitely more daunting: selecting just one book from each year. I read across many genres; I like a variety of narrative styles, character arcs, and historical periods. But since this entire project was predicated on enjoying myself, I knew I had to satisfy my highest standard. The feature I value above all else in a book: the quality of the writing.
I readily admit I'm a critical reader. I analyze word choice. I appreciate eloquent turns of phrase. I happily re-read well-crafted passages and copy them into my reading journal. To me, the ability to get lost in a story requires flawless prose. Now before anyone feels the need to object, let me make two points: 1) Just as I think it's fair for me to prefer excellently prepared seafood, though I'm incapable of cooking it myself, I think it's fair for me to prefer high-quality writing while my own is far from perfect; and 2) I fully believe good writing is possible in any genre, not just literary fiction. I was not about to let my standards preclude entire genres from my List.
Thus I began my search by finding the past winners and finalists of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award. But something rather disturbing quickly became apparent. Do you see what I see? Winners in bold.
Pulitzer Prize Fiction and General Nonfiction Winners & Finalists
1986: Larry McMurtry, Russell Banks, Anne Tyler, J. Anthony Lukas, Joseph Lelyveld, Robert N. Bellah
1987: Peter Taylor, Donald Barthelme, Norman Rush, David K. Shipler, Cyra McFadden, John McPhee
1988: Toni Morrison, Diane Johnson, Alice McDermott, Richard Rhodes, James Gleick, Daniel Callahan
National Book Award Fiction and Nonfiction Winners & Finalists
1986: E.L. Doctorow, Norman Rush, Peter Taylor, Barry Lopez, John W. Dower, Richard Kluger, Michael Reynolds, Theodore Rosengarten
1987: Larry Heinemann, Alice McDermott, Toni Morrison, Howard Norman, Philip Roth, Richard Rhodes, David Herbert Donald, James Gleick, Claudia Koonz, Robert A.M. Stern
1988: Pete Dexter, Don DeLillo, Mary McGarry Morris, James F. Powers, Anne Tyler, Neil Sheehan, Eric Foner, Peter Gay, Brenda Maddox, Jack McLaughlin
National Book Critics Circle Fiction and General Nonfiction Winners & Finalists
1986: Reynolds Price, Louise Erdrich, Peter Taylor, Thomas Williams, John Updike, Barry Lopez, Bernard Bailyn, Jonathan Evan Maslow, John W. Dower, Marc Reisner
1987: Philip Roth, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison, Tom Wolfe, Wallace Stegner, Richard Rhodes, Randy Shilts, James Miller, Charles Mee, Stephen Jay Gould
1988: Bharati Mukherjee, Don DeLillo, Pete Dexter, James F. Powers, Raymond Carver, Taylor Branch, James M. McPherson, Neil Sheehan, Jane Kramer, Eric Foner
That's three years' worth of authors nominated for some of the most prestigious writing awards given in the English language. And there are 2 women among the 19 winners. Only 16 of the pool of 76 winners and finalists are women. A slightly better 12 out of 46 if nominations for the same work by the same author are removed. I find it very difficult to believe more women authors were not worthy of nomination and victory. So I decided to stage my own personal feminist protest and read only women authors for the next year.
Doing so meant expanding my search for titles. In addition to the resources listed above, I also consulted the American Library Association's Notable Books lists, New York Times Bestseller lists, and Goodreads and NoveList (your public library likely has a subscription to this service) searching by publication year. Finally, I weeded out any books that I've already read, anything dystopian and/or set during WWII (I've read enough of these for now), and non-initial volumes in a series. There were some years that were hard to narrow down (1986, 2011, 2013) and others that required additional in-depth searches (1996, 2007).
So that's how, at long last, I arrived at The List. First up: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I'll publish my review on Monday, September 12. How do you choose what's next on your TBR list? Any great resources that I missed?
Keep turning the page,