There was a bit of gallows humor at the 60th annual National Book Awards ceremony in New York last night. Host Andy Borowitz said that when he was first invited to emcee the awards, he was so honored that he said he would have done it for free. As it turns out, he said, "The NBA had the same idea." When it comes to the economics of the publishing world, Borowitz said, "We're all in the same sinking ship."
But you wouldn't have known it from appearances at last night's ceremony. The event was held in the grand ballroom at Cipriani Wall Street and the well-dressed throng of authors and publishers all enjoying an expensive meal created at least the impression of prosperity and well being.
And there was no shortage of collective enthusiasm for the judges' choices as the winners were announced.
In the fiction category, the award went to Irish author Colum McCann for "Let the Great World Spin," his novel focusing on the lives of various New Yorkers on the day in 1974 when French trapeze artist Phillip Petit walked a tight rope between the World Trade Center towers. McCann dedicated his award to recently deceased "Angela's Ashes" author Frank McCourt saying, "I think he's dancing upstairs."
The nonfiction winner was T.J. Stiles for "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt," who reminded the audience as he accepted the award that "the book lies at the heart of all of our culture."
The award for poetry went to Brown University professor Keith Waldrop for his book of recent verse, "Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy." For Waldrop, the award was a long time coming – he was previously nominated for a National Book Award 40 years ago, but did not win at that time. Even last night Waldrop took the casual approach. His wife – Rosemarie Waldrop, with whom he co-edits Burning Deck Press – accompanied him from Providence to New York but did not attend the award ceremony, opting instead for the new Philip Glass opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "I almost went to the opera myself," Waldrop confessed.
In the category of children's books the award went to Phillip Hoose for "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice," a biography of "the first Rosa Parks," a Montgomery, Ala., teenager who refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus nine months before Rosa Parks became famous for the same act. Colvin – who had been almost forgotten by history before Hoose's book revived awareness of her story – appeared on stage with Hoose as he claimed the award, waving and smiling to the crowd.
And novelist Samantha Hunt ("The Invention of Everything Else") presented the 2009 Literarian award for outstanding service to the American literary community to McSweeney's co-founder and author ("A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius") Dave Eggers.
Eggers, who teaches writing to high school students, struck perhaps the most unabashedly optimistic note of the evening, particularly when he repeated some of his students' enthusiastic comments on the subject of reading (including their total disdain for electronic readers.)
Despite what one might hear otherwise, insisted Eggers, today is actually "a golden time for publishing," particularly as it represents a moment of "unprecedented pluralism."