Some Thoughts on the Nobel Prize

Father Reading to Daughter. Hila Avrahamzon, 2016

I want to share some thoughts I’ve been having about a little challenge I’ve been facing in the past several years.

I have always loved reading and ever since I remember myself, I had a stack of books next to my bed. Being old school, I still do most of my reading on paper and have made it a habit that whenever I visit a new place, I go to a local second-hand bookstore to look for interesting stuff to add to my ever-expanding library.

A few years back I took upon myself to read at least one book by each and every Nobel Laureate in Literature since the Prize was established in 1901, some 117 years ago.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is considered the highest honor a writer can receive, and this A-list includes 114 different people (the prize was not awarded in 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940–43 and 2018 and was awarded to two nominees in 1904, 1917, 1966 and 1974). This honor was bestowed mostly on novelists; however, 25 poets were awarded the prize over the years, as well as one world leader (Winston Churchill, 1953) and one folk singer (Bob Dylan, 2016). Two winners declined the prize (Boris Pasternak, 1958 and Jean-Paul Sartre, 1964) and, sadly, only 14 women have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, representing 12.3% of all winners. (There can be some consolation in the fact that this is a much better rate than any other Nobel Prize category).

I started this quest as a means to broaden my horizons — after all the list includes writers from 40 different countries writing in 25 different languages — and besides, I thought it’ll be kinda cool and something interesting to tell the kids.

Before starting, I tried guessing how many I had already read, thinking it must be at least 15–20. After all these are the best writers of the century and I have always loved to read good books, right? Wrong! Apparently, I started the quest with only 3 winners in my pocket, 2 of them I read as part of my high school curriculum.

So, after 5 years I stand at 57 (I do read other stuff, OK!) which means I’m halfway through, so I thought this would be a good time to take a break and reflect.

It wasn’t always easy. With some I struggled, finishing others only because I had to (we don’t give up easily in my family), but most were very interesting, and some were pure fun. I read books by authors from countries I otherwise would have never been exposed to (Halldor Laxness, Iceland, 1935; Wikipedia; amazon), I read about events I never took the time to explore (Mo Yan, China, 2012; Wikipedia; amazon) and cultures I hardly knew anything about (Henryk Sienkiewicz, Poland, 1905; Wikipedia; amazon). It’s been a global literary tour through nations and cultures, one that can only be matched by a real tour around the world (and who’s got time for that, right). It’s been a journey through history seeing how people and literature developed throughout the century and how the type and character of nominees changed along with it.

Taking an interest in the Nobel Prize in general, and in literature specifically, exposed me to the politics and heated debates surrounding the work of the committee as well as the many calls for eliminating the prize altogether (2018 was a tough year for the committee with sexual harassment accusation and political struggle that caused the 2018 prize in literature to be cancelled for the first time since WWII).

There are many who say this is an archaic institution, representing white conservatives (yes, they have those in Sweden) serving themselves (literally — 5.3% of laureates are Swedish while they only constitute for 0.13% of the worlds’ population, not to mention that ALL Swedish winners served on the Nobel Prize committee, most of them at the time of their nomination!) and adhering to populist opinion. Critics cite cases such as J.M. Coetzee who wrote bravely against the South African apartheid in the early 1980s and was nominated in 2003, some 25 years later, and Doris Lessing whose feminist title The Golden Notebook was groundbreaking when written in 1962 however was not nominated until 2007, no less than 45 later(!) as examples for the committee’s inability or lack of will to identify and call out brave and groundbreaking work as it forms and instead wait for it to become common practice before providing them with their so sought after stamp of approval.

Others argue that the institute of the Nobel Prize provides credit and foundation, spearheading the entire prize industry in a wide range of fields — from the Fields Medal in Mathematics to the Oscars –providing “thought leaders” — from artists and scientists to world leaders — with the honor and prestige required to keep knowledge and ideas moving forward, be it universities fighting to list Nobel laureates on their faculty or studios utilizing the effect an Oscar winning director or actress has on box office revenues.

Whether the Nobel Prize is an outdated institute focusing on maintaining the existing political and social structure or a key factor in driving human race forward, it sure provides for a good bedtime reading.

Some recommended reads so far:

Henryk Sienkiewicz, 1905, On the Field of Glory

Rudyard Kipling, 1907, Kim

Sinclair Lewis, 1930, Elmer Gantry

Pearl S. Buck, 1938, The Good Earth

William Faulkner, 1949, The Reivers

John Steinbeck, 1962, Grapes of Wrath

Shmuel Yosef Agnon, 1966, Tehila

Miguel Ángel Asturias, 1967, The Mulatta and Mister Fly

Gabriel García Márquez, 1982, The Autumn of the Patriarch

Toni Morrison, 1993, Song of Solomon

José Saramago, 1998, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

Orhan Pamuk, 2006, My Name is Red

Mario Vargas Llosa, 2010, War of the End of the World

Mo Yan, 2012, Frog

Kazuo Ishiguro, 2017, The Remains of the Day


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