Share 11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

Taylor Noel is a marketing manager in the Random House Group. She loves literary fiction and memoirs, but will read any book put in her hands. Taylor shares her book obsessions on Instagram @books_with_taylor.

I’m a little obsessed with the National Book Award for Fiction. I honestly treat it like the Academy Awards or the Grammys. Every year I enter a pool with my colleagues, betting on which novel I think will win. I’ve never guessed correctly, but that’s beside the point. The point, of course, is that the National Book Award for Fiction is highly prestigious and a great indicator of excellent literature. Here are 11 of the many fiction winners you should definitely read.


The Good Lord Bird
by James McBride

2013 Winner

THE GOOD LORD BIRD is the story of Henry Shackleford, a young boy born a slave in the Kansas Territory who joins legendary abolitionist John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive. An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with James McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character.

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The Good Lord Bird
James McBride

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MENTIONED IN:

11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

By Taylor Noel | November 15, 2017

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The Round House
by Louise Erdrich

2012 Winner

THE ROUND HOUSE transports readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota as a boy on the cusp of manhood seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends his family. This greatly beloved novel is a powerful coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a tender novel of family, history, and culture.

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The Round House
Louise Erdrich

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11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

By Taylor Noel | November 15, 2017

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Salvage the Bones
by Jesmyn Ward

2011 Winner

Set in the 12 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in Mississippi, SALVAGE THE BONES follows a family of motherless children as they do everything they can to protect and care for each other. It’s a stunning and heart-wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty.

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Salvage the Bones
Jesmyn Ward

Set in the 12 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in Mississippi, a family of motherless children do everything they can to protect and care for each other. SALVAGE THE BONES is a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty.

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MENTIONED IN:

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Lord of Misrule
by Jaimy Gordon

2010 Winner

LORD OF MISRULE is a brilliant novel that captures the dusty, dark, and glamorous world of small-time horse racing in which trainers, jockeys, grooms, and grifters vie for what little luck is offered at a rundown West Virginia track.

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Lord of Misrule
Jaimy Gordon

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MENTIONED IN:

11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

By Taylor Noel | November 15, 2017

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Let the Great World Spin
by Colum McCann

2009 Winner

It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the Twin Towers. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Read the full review of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN.

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Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann

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Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson

2007 Winner

One of the best books of 2007, TREE OF SMOKE is the riveting story of a CIA agent engaged in disastrous Psychological Operations against the Vietcong, and of the Houston brothers who drift out of the Arizona desert and into a war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away.

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Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson

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MENTIONED IN:

11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

By Taylor Noel | November 15, 2017

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The News from Paraguay
by Lily Tuck

2004 Winner

It’s 1854 in Paris and the future dictator of Paraguay, Francisco Solano, has just begun his courtship of a young, beautiful Irish courtesan. When Ella follows Franco to Asunción, she finds herself isolated and embraces her lover’s ill-fated imperial dream. Readers of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa will love this rich and intimate narrative.

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The News from Paraguay
Lily Tuck

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MENTIONED IN:

11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

By Taylor Noel | November 15, 2017

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Three Junes
by Julia Glass

2002 Winner

THREE JUNES traces the lives of a Scottish family for more than a decade as they confront the joys and longings, fulfillments and betrayals of love in all its guises. In prose rich with compassion and wit, this astonishing first novel paints a haunting portrait of love’s redemptive powers.

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Three Junes
Julia Glass

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MENTIONED IN:

11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

By Taylor Noel | November 15, 2017

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The Shipping News
by Annie Proulx

1993 WInner

A third-rate newspaperman moves himself and his two daughters to the coast of Newfoundland after his wife passes away. As Quoyle restarts his life and settles further into the community, he begins to find a new and much more rewarding life, but he also learns deep and troubling secrets about his ancestors. A vigorous, darkly comic, and at times magical portrait of the contemporary North American family. Tonight at the NBA ceremony, Annie Proulx is receiving the Lifetime Acheivement Award—24 years after THE SHIPPING NEWS won the 1993 National Book Award for Fiction.

Read the full review of THE SHIPPING NEWS.

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The Shipping News
Annie Proulx

Awarded the prize in 1994, THE SHIPPING NEWS is an enchanting look at the contemporary American family. When a third-rate newspaper hack’s cheating wife dies, he and his daughters move to Newfoundland, where they must face their personal demons as a long winter closes in.

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MENTIONED IN:

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All the Pretty Horses
by Cormac McCarthy

1992 Winner

ALL THE PRETTY HORSES is the tale of John Grady Cole, who at 16 finds himself at the end of a long line of Texas ranchers, cut off from the only life he has ever imagined for himself. With two companions, he sets off for Mexico on a sometimes idyllic, sometimes comic journey to a place where dreams are paid for in blood.

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All the Pretty Horses
Cormac McCarthy

Amarillo, TX: This winner of the National Book Award for Fiction tells the story of John Grady Cole, who at sixteen finds himself at the end of a long line of Texas ranchers. He sets off from Texas to Mexico on a sometimes idyllic, sometimes comic journey.

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MENTIONED IN:

11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

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Middle Passage
by Charles Johnson

1990 Winner

Desperate to escape the city’s unscrupulous bill collectors and a schoolteacher hell-bent on marrying him, newly freed slave Rutherford Calhoun jumps aboard a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe. Thus begins a voyage of metaphysical horror and human atrocity, a journey that challenges our notions of freedom, fate, and how we live together.

Read the full review of MIDDLE PASSAGE.

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Middle Passage
Charles Johnson

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MENTIONED IN:

11 National Book Award-Winning Novels to Read Before You Die

By Taylor Noel | November 15, 2017

An American Masterpiece That Resonates in Our Time

By Mark Sarvas | July 31, 2015

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