Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award
Taking a look back in a light-hearted debate
Are books that were popular a hundred years ago still relevant today? That’s the question we ask every year at the Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award, where three distinguished panelists make a strong case for their books. The audience chooses the winner. Learning from yesterday’s literature has never been this fun.
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Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award of 1920

Wednesday, November 4, 2020 via a virtual presentation

On November 4, 2020 the Associates weighed the enduring literary merits of bestsellers published one hundred years ago. The contenders for the Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award of 1920 were Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, Karel Čapek's R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), and W.E.B. DuBois' Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. The books were championed by Susan Wissler, Alan Lightman and Chad Williams respectively. Radio host Christopher Lydon moderated the lighthearted debate, after which the audience voted on the winner... Darkwater! To watch this virtual presentation, conducted over Zoom, visit our YouTube channel.


Christopher Lydon

Debate Moderator:

Christopher Lydon

Christopher Lydon is the host of WBUR’s Radio Open Source, a conversation on arts, ideas and politics. He recorded the original podcast in 2003 with Dave Winer. Previously, he covered city and state politics for the Boston Globe and presidential campaigns for the New York Times' Washington bureau, hosted The Ten O'Clock News at WGBH-TV in Boston, and co-founded The Connection on WBUR public radio.

Speaking for the Candidates:

Susan Wissler

Alan Lightman
Susan Wissler is the Executive Director of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home. The Mount is a National Historic Landmark and cultural center that celebrates the intellectual, artistic, and humanitarian legacy of Wharton (1862-1937). Wissler joined The Mount in 2001 as Vice President and became Executive Director in 2008. She graduated from Brown University, received a J.D. from Columbia University, and, prior to joining The Mount, practiced law in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Highlights of Ms. Wissler’s nineteen years at The Mount include the return of Wharton’s books to the library and the retirement of The Mount’s debt. In 2018, Ms. Wissler edited deceased French scholar and author Claudine Lesage’s Edith Wharton in France.

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Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence

Mitchard will be defending The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This novel, originally serialized in Pictorial Review and published in book form by D. Appleton & Company in 1920, was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Wharton uses the novel to look back, not so flatteringly, at the so-called “Gilded Age” of 1870s New York City, the place of her childhood, with its money, manners, and morality (or lack thereof).

Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman is a physicist, novelist, and essayist. He was educated at Princeton University and at the California Institute of Technology, where he received a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. At MIT, Lightman was the first person to receive dual faculty appointments in science and in the humanities, and was John Burchard Professor of Humanities before becoming Professor of the Practice of the Humanities to allow more time for his writing. Lightman is the author of five novels, two collections of essays, a book-length narrative poem, and several books on science.

The Associates honored Lightman as a Literary Light in 1995. His novel Einstein’s Dreams was an international bestseller and has been translated into thirty languages. His novel The Diagnosis was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award in fiction. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Lightman is also the founding director of the Harpswell Foundation, which works to advance a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia. 


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Karel Čapek's R.U.R.

Lightman will be defending R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek. This seminal science fiction play introduced the word “robot to the English language, although technically the robots in the play are more akin to the Replicants in the movie Blade Runner or the “hosts” of television’s Westworld in that they are living organic beings as opposed to mechanical machines. The robots are, of course, slaves. They are thought not to have feelings nor need to be paid for their labors. The inevitable robot rebellion ensues with dire consequences for humanity.

Chad Williams

Chad Williams

Chad Williams is the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Brandeis University. Williams earned a BA with honors in History and African American Studies from UCLA and received both his MA and Ph.D. from Princeton University. He specializes in African American and modern United States history, African American military history, the World War I era and African American intellectual history. 

His first book, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era, was published in 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press. Widely praised as a landmark study , Torchbearers of Democracy won the 2011 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award from the Organization of American Historians, and the 2011 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History. Williams has published articles and book reviews in leading academic journals and collections, as well as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Time and The Conversation. He has earned fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, among others.  His next book, The Wounded World: W.E.B. DuBois and World War I, will be published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.


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W.E.B. DuBois' Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil 

Williams will be defending Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W.E.B. DuBois. This collection of essays, autobiographical musings, poems, and spirituals is a counterpoint to his 1903 Souls of Black Folk. DuBois was left disillusioned and despairing after the horrors of World War I, and the events of the “Red Summer” of 1919 when the United States exploded with pandemic, violence, lynchings, and race riots. The “Veil” in the title is a metaphor of the color barrier that separates the races, a barrier that can be seen through, but never crossed. This work is an important follow-up to last year’s Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award winner, Carl Sandburg’s The Chicago Race Riots.

Previous Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Awards


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The Associates of the Boston Public Library's Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award is now in its twenty-second year.

To read about the previous debates click below.