Friday, April 27, 2007

From 1918 to today, retiree reads Pulitzer Prize winners

On Wednesday, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich devoted her column to Mona McNeese, who plans to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. What makes McNeese's reading habits newsworthy?

Seven years ago, the 73-year-old McNeese, of Oak Park, Illinois, retired after a career as a teacher and school principal. At her retirement, McNeese decided to read all the novels that had won a Pulitzer Prize. She started with the 1918 winner – Ernest Poole’s His Family.

“McNeese had grown up feeling that non-fiction was the writing that mattered and fiction was just frivolous,” Schmich wrote. “Reading changed her mind, and she read everywhere. In the parked car. In bed every night for hours. At the dining table, scratching notes on ruled paper collected in a loose-leaf binder.

“She divided books into categories. Ones on modernization, ones on war or politics. True romance was rare. She puzzled over the merits of a dozen or so winners.”

McNeese didn’t finish the 1936 winner Honey in the Horn, deciding that life is too short to finish a bad book. She loved A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor, James Agee’s A Death in the Family and John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano. She also liked Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

McNeese, who accomplished her goal in 2003, now reads all sorts of books. Schmich reports that most nights, she reads aloud to her husband Jim, who has lost most of his sight. She takes notes on what she reads. This passage, from Reading Lolita in Tehran, caught her eye:

“A novel is not an allegory. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a book: you inhale the experience.”

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