Notwithstanding the killing hours of preparation (I’m awards chair), there is nothing quite so exhilarating as the annual National Book Critics Circle Awards‚ a triumph of good books and, just as significantly, rigorous and considered book conversation over commodity and mush. Yes, I’m happy with every winner, starting with Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (Lookout Books), a collection of condensed, jewel-like stories; Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf Press), an example of how a supreme working critic works; and Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon Press), a book of compacted musical line and artful consideration of the everyday.
Then there’s Mira Bartók’s The Memory Palace: A Memoir (Free Press), a study of a homeless, mentally ill mother by her artist daughter that successfully blends art, journal entries, and fine writing; John Lewis Gaddis’s magisterial George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press), which shows us not just a life but important world history; and Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf), a fresh and original look at a subject we rarely consider: the colonists who didn’t want independence and the consequences not simply for America but for the entire British Empire.
But for me the awards are not an end in themselves but a means to promoting our efforts as an organization and some important ideas we represent: that critical thinking is invalauble, that well-articulated views on a book’s strengths and drawbacks beat basic thumbs-up, thumbs-down ratings any day, and that such discussion is precisely the pleasure a book delivers. I can’t say how our deliberations went, of course, but I can say that they reflected precisely that spirit of energetic, considered opinion.