by NOVEMBER 16, 2017, first appearing on Library Journal
“Books matter because they give us information and hope and connect us to other people,” said Lisa Lucas, the National Book Foundation’s executive director, in a recorded message at the National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner on November 15, at Cipriani’s in New York. Lucas appeared in person as well, appealing to the tightly packed audience for support (envelopes in the program facilitated donations) and proclaim the desire to “not just celebrate [both winners and finalists] tonight but…keep celebrating the work they do.” The awards were the focus of the evening, but as always, National Book Foundation programming got big plugs throughout.
Lucas’s what-books-can-do theme was carried forth by the award winners. Robin Benway, winner of the award for Young People’s Literature for Far from the Tree (HarperTeen), an affecting story of family, told her fellow finalists that “sharing this experience with you has been an honor” and celebrated teenagers as the “toughest audience because they need to hear the truth more than anybody.” Said Frank Bidart, poetry winner for Half-light: Collected Poems, 1965–2016 (Farrar), a magisterial compilation of all the poet’s previous volumes plus the new collection Thirst, “I’m almost twice as old as any of the other finalists, and writing poems is how I survived…. I hope the journey these poems go on help others to survive as well.”
Masha Gessen, whose The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead) clarifies the emergence of a new brand of autocracy in Russia today by charting the lives of four people born at the time Communism fell, noted “I never thought a Russian book would be on the list for the National Book Awards, but things have changed.” Said Paula J. Giddings, chair of the nonfiction panel, the judges looked for books that were “national or transnational in scope and significance,…books that spoke to the underpinnings that shape a culture, …and books that [address] the tyranny of state”—those who perpetuate it, those who succumb to it, and those who resist.
Winning her second National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner), an ambitious story of poverty, oppression, and family fractured along race lines and encompassing African American–rooted magic realism, Jesmyn Ward spoke affectingly of the subtexts she has sensed in rejections of her work, as if readers were saying, “What do I have in common with a pregnant 15-year-old or a 13-year-old with a drug-addicted mother?” That challenge to universality begs the question of what books can do, as articulated by master of ceremonies Cynthia Nixon, who saw them as offering not just escape but a “welcome knowledge of history [and] broadened perspective. They cultivate empathy, inspire action, and make us feel less alone.”
Presented with the 2017 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, Richard Robinson, Scholastic chairman of the board, said that while he always wanted to receive a prize for a novel, “I am so grateful to the National Book Foundation for giving me a reading award instead.” His acceptance speech, gracefully introduced by President Bill Clinton (“I don’t think he’s ever going to win an award that reflects his heart as this one does”), embodied his conviction that reading is a solution to social ills, which makes it especially important to get books into the hands of all children.“In the years to come, reading will be more important than ever,” he declared. Rejecting a world of 20 percent reading haves and 80 percent have nots, he added “We have a huge stake in establishing a level playing field.”
Annie Proulx, winner of the 2017 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, took up the theme of social responsibility, pointing out that “we are living through a massive transition from representative democracy to viral direct democracy,” which is overwhelming us in a “garbage-strewn tsunami of raw data.” Decrying environmental degradation and encouraging listeners to join citizen science projects, she celebrating “outmoded values like truth” and wrestled with the tension between hard facts and hope, taking up books as a model: “The happy ending still beckons.”