Award winners, Books, Historical Fiction

My (Almost) Year of Reading on the Edge


An experiment with reading outside my normal comfort zone.

I graduated from college last December, with a Bachelor’s degree.  Better late than never, right?  All those years of being a single mom, full-time employee and full-time student had really cut into my reading time.  I read a lot of YA and MG stuff, just because the stories were still entertaining, but mostly under 300 pages.  So, I have to admit, when I grabbed that fake diploma that Saturday morning, my mind was already going to what books I was going to read, the series that I could finish, or the great works I could undertake.

Around the same time, a friend of mine unintentionally sparked some personal challenge within me.  A fellow bibliophile, he casually mentioned that his goal for the upcoming year was to read the ten books found on the Time Magazine Best of Fiction List for 2013.  I looked at the list and thought, “Hmm, yeah, let’s do this.”  I didn’t do a lot of reading off the list at first, however, I was still trying to get caught up on some books I received for Christmas, and a few that I found at one of my countless visits to the library.

Then this same friend recommended the book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.  I did some checking, and found that it was on the long list for the 2013 National Book Award.  This sparked off an interest in the National Book Award.  I had heard of it, had read some of the books casually, but never with the forethought of “Oh, it’s a National Book Award winner, I’ll read that.”  I looked at the list and decided to try some of the books on the Long List.  Of course, that only sparked an interest in Pulitzer winners – again, I had read many over the years, but never actively sought out the winners or finalists to read.

It has been an interesting year, as I transitioned from mostly “genre fiction” to “literary fiction.”  I had never really considered literary fiction outside a classroom before; again, I had read some of these masterpieces for fun, and enjoyed them, but as I began to read I noticed a few things about “literary fiction.”  One, many of these award winning books really have no plot.  Yes, I said it, no plot.  But the writing is beautiful, the lives so wretched, and the locations so foreign, that you cannot help but be swept along in the fictitious lives of characters you sometimes love, sometimes hate, but always want to know.

Two, there is an unintentional snobbery attached to prizewinning books.  When you explain to people that you are trying to read these award winning books, some of them get this guarded look on their faces, like “oh, geez, how pretentious, I can’t tell them I’m reading this YA book now.”  But, I am the least pretentious reader I know, I read across the board, although I am really getting tired of series and YA dystopia.

Three, the National Book Award has a children’s winner.  To me, this is reason enough to read children’s books, because these awards are for adults.  I know very few children who would pick up a book and say, “OOOh look, this won the National Book Award!  I MUST read it.”  I believe the same is true for the Newberry and Caldecott honors – although, I must admit, as a child, I did actively seek out Newberry winners.  But…I’m weird.

Okay, there’s some of what I learned about awards.  But how did I enjoy these books?  I really loved this experiment.  A few books really stand out to me – The Signature of All Things (not an award winner, but on the Top Ten Time Magazine list); A Constellation of Vital Phenomena; The Son; The Goldfinch; The Lowland; All the Light We Cannot See (sure to be on a Best of 2014 list); and Life After Life.  Many of these were not award winners but were on a best of list somewhere, or a “must read” book list.

I will say I would love to know what the criteria for the winners are. Or at least, understand what is going through the judges’ minds.  I thought Constellation was a much better book than the actual NBA winner, The Good Lord Bird, which I liked, but did not love.  I might have to go back and re-read it though.

I am interested to see what the next few months bring, reading-wise.  One of my graduate classes required 11 books, so I am certain my “fun” reading is going to take a serious hit.  But, thankfully, most of those books look interesting (as does the class), so I am anxious to leap in.  Of course, I will be posting here as often as time allows; I doubt there will be a lot of book reviews, you can always find me on Goodreads for that.



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