When I discovered Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury) last spring, then featured it as a Pick, having fallen in love with its coruscating beauty, and begged to introduce the author at LJ‘s Movers and Shakers luncheon at this year’s American Library Association conference in New Orleans (a moment of which I am rather too proud), little did I realize that the book would be nominated for a National Book Award in fiction‚ much less win.
When my LJ colleagues began debating this year’s NBA list and I offered that the poetry finalists were indeed masters though perhaps also, for the most part, scrappy old lions (to quote from finalist Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Chameleon Couch) and then, thinking about the finalists on awards day, suddenly recalled my roundup review of Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split (Triquarterly: Northwestern Univ.) as pointed and affecting and decided that it was my first choice, never did I think it would have a chance.
When I hunkered down during Hurricane Irene, reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton), puzzling over what the author himself called at the ceremony the strangeness of a poem written long ago and wishing he would tell me even more about Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, I didn’t particularly imagine that others would want to read about this poem and the Italian book collector who rediscovered it in 1417‚ but they did.
As Greenblatt noted in his acceptance speech at the 62nd National Book Awards, held in New York on November 16, his is a book about books: about the power of books to cross boundaries, to speak to you impossibly across space and time and distance, about having someone long dead seem to be in the room with you, and what the magic of the written word is.
It’s that power, that magic, that readers (and judges) look for, whether in nonfiction (which makes a pact with truth, but only art distinguishes it from mere information said Alice Kaplan, nonfiction panel chair) or fiction (we were interested in what responses the books produced in us, said Deirdre McNamer, fiction panel chair) or poetry. As Ann Lauterbach said when introducing John Ashbery, winner of this year’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, his poems offer the profound solace of recognition; ‚ÄòAh, ah this is as it is.’
Books are so powerful that, as Finney pointed out in a resoundingly eloquent acceptance speech that host John Lithgow proclaimed the best he’d ever heard, teaching a slave to read was a dangerous act. It’s heartbreaking to think as one reads her book that “African Americans are the only Americans who were expressly forbidden to be literate.” But one cannot underestimate the will of the human heart to speak its own mind, as evidenced by her poetry, grounded in the persevering beauty of African American history.
Ashbery had some gentle fun, arguing that as the world sees it poets aren’t really writers (never tell your interlocutor that you’re a poet or he’ll leave the room), then addressed the thorny issues of how famously difficult his poetry can be. It lacks accessibility, he faux moaned, a relatively recent requirement. When I discovered poetry I loved it for its difficulty. Picasso and Stravinsky can demand much of audiences, he noted, so why not verse. Point well taken. Anything worth reading is worth investing some time in; good books ask for commitment.
Lithgow, a genial and literate host (for once), made much of the higher aspirations of literary art compared with his lowly position as a speaker of other people’s words‚ though he did point out that after writing a number of children’s books, he is now a legitimate adult author, having penned a self-portrait in response to the appalling dearth of celebrity memoirs.
He even envisioned a glorious new era of cross-fertilization, with hosts dancing back and forth between the high art of literature and the lower art of entertainment. Philip Roth could host the Oscars, Joan Didion the Emmies, and Ashbery himself the People’s Choice Awards. Ashbery was certainly the people’s choice last night, and Lithgow is my choice as NBA host for years to come.
When I committed myself to writing, my brother had just died, Ward explained, and for me life was a feeble, unpredictable thing. I write the kind of life he might have lived. In her work, Ward aims to share the experiences of the poor and the black and the people of the South, hoping to show others that these lives are as fraught and lovely as theirs.
Indeed, the imaginative power of the written word lets us enter into the life of Ward’s rural African Americans, or Greenblatt’s dedicated 15th-century book collectors, or the hungry personae flocking Finney’s pages, or the Vietnamese immigrants in Thanhha Lai’s Young People’s win, Inside Out & Back Again. It got a real workout on NBA award night, above the flash and glamour. (A Twitter buddy asked if there was much tweed in evidence. Nope, but I did see evening gowns and even, shocking to me, fur.) How unsettling that, as we were celebrating books, police were wrestling back the Occupy Wall Street library. But Literarian Award winner Mitchell Kaplan had the last word in this regard, saying there’s room for hope. People cared enough to build that library, and everywhere readers still want to know about books.