Books

Collecting Pulitzers

My obsession with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels kicked into high-gear in 2004 when considering a topic for my Masters thesis. I'd been wrestling with an idea about literary osmosis, that what you read influences what you write. Writers I knew almost always wrote stories similar to those they read. My best friend is a fantasy fan, with her Raymond E. Feist's in pristine order on her shelves beside rows of Sara Douglass'. She writes beautiful stories of human courage, all based in fantastical worlds. My husband reads Lenny Bruce, Dashiell Hammett, and zombie books and his fictional writing draws from each in the most exquisite ways.

As for me? When I read Alice Bloom, I write short stories. Erik Larson gets me in the mood to seek out ancient crimes and write about them. When I read celebrity bios, I write pretend memoirs of '80s sitcom stars like Jodie Sweetin. Reading Judy Blume? Writing about my teen years. Reading Toni Morrison? Writing about womanhood. Stephen King: personal demons. Steven Martin Cohen? You probably don't want to know.

Discovering these links prompted me to experiment: What if I read only Pulitzer Prize-winning novels while writing the creative component of my thesis? Surely, I'd come up with the greatest creative work a student has ever produced.

In short, I found out that quality is what you make it. But plot-wise, utterly without even realizing, I stole from every book I read. And very specifically. This was more than thematic borrowing -- this was osmotic plagiarism. And I didn't even notice.

Key elements of a range of novels all ended up in my piece: Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, William Kennedy's Ironweed, Ernest Poole's His Family, Millhauser's Martin Dressler, The Magnificent Ambersons, Willa Cather's One of Ours, even The Age of Innocence, which I stopped reading half way through because it bored me to tears. (I'll go back one day.)

The experiment, for all intents and purposes, was a resounding success: yes, I took in what I read and sent it out again. But I found something way more interesting than that. Writing is of course going to share similarities because of the universality of experience. The similarities between His Family and Breathing Lessons are greater than you might ever suspect, but they're there. It's true that the Pulitzer Prize winning novels will be thematically similar because of the award's specific criteria, but I found, simply, that reading Pulitzer Prize winners from each decade revealed the history of America.

Since this discovery, I've become more intent on finding all the winning books. I've managed to collect 53 of 82. Those left on my list appear to be the most difficult to find: Scarlet Sister Mary, Dragon's Teeth, Years of Grace, So Big!, and others. The best source is, of course, eBay, or the Franklin Mint. But the budget can only stretch so far.

I'm enjoying, far more than scouring the Internet, stumbling across the books, like the copy of Shirley Anne Grau's The Keepers of the House I found early in my search in the bottom of a donations bin outside my public library. It was squished in between some huge World Book encyclopedias, all beaten and bruised. I found Arrowsmith for a dollar a matter of weeks after I had elected to steal it from the library's branch room, where books go to die.

I even found some of the books -- The Yearling, The Old Man and the Sea -- long forgotten in the back of my very own bookshelves.

The later books have been easy to acquire -- Philip Roth, Updike, Anne Tyler. But the old ones prove more difficult. And I probably haven't added a book to the collection in over a year. The well, it would seem, has run dry. It might be time to go back to eBay.

My biggest eBay score was courtesy of a generous woman selling her collection of Pulitzer books, fiction and non-fiction. For about a hundred bucks, I got a box full of novels, plays, travel and science texts. My favourite eBay purchase, though, is a 1923 paperback of The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson. I picked up for about seven dollars. It came in a sandwich bag, and has a little pen squiggle on the inside cover. It's beautiful, and, man, has it been read. Which, for this collector, only adds value.

I wonder who read it. And why. I wonder what they thought of it, if they wrote stories, too. I wonder how much we share.

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