In 2012, the American Library Association (ALA) founded the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction award, its first single-book award for adult books to honor the “best of the best published in the United States from the previous year.” The 2013 winners—Richard Ford’s Canada (Ecco: HarperCollins) for fiction and Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (Houghton Harcourt) for nonfiction—were announced on Sunday, June 30, to an almost full ballroom at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in Chicago as part of the ALA annual conference.
Ford’s first novel in six years portrays a teenage boy’s sense of loss when he must go live with a family friend in Canada after his parents’ imprisonment, and Egan’s magisterial work examines Curtis’s 30-year effort to photograph all the remaining Native American tribes in the Northeast.
ALA president Maureen Sullivan’s opening remarks included a quote from Andrew Carnegie— “Libraries are a place of joy and imagination—” and Booklist publisher, vice president, and editor Bill Ott reflected, “last year [when the award was inaugurated] was about making book history, the second [year] already feels like an old friend.”
Selection committee chair, librarian, and readers’ advisory expert Nancy Pearl welcomed a teeming crowd of librarians and library professionals. Describing the selection process, which begins with a long list of 50 titles compiled from the Reference and User Services Association’s (RUSA) Notable Books List and Booklist’s Editors’ Choice List and ends with six finalists, Pearl said, “I know I speak for all award committee members when I say that being one of the judges for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction is both a great pleasure and a great responsibility. “The two winners,” she continued, “while differing greatly in subject matter, tone, and style, share two important characteristics: they’re both terrific reads, both illuminating and absorbing, and each is simply wonderfully written.”
When it was time to introduce the finalists, projected onto big screens via prerecorded video were comments from those authors who were unable to attend: Junot Díaz, author of This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead: Penguin Group [USA]), offered up his appreciation for libraries, specifically for the librarian of his childhood from New York’s Madison Park Library, and signed off with, “Thank you for me!” Novelist Louise Erdrich, nominated for The Round House (Harper: HarperCollins), filmed herself in the stacks of her local library in Wahpeton, ND, which she described as “a real library in a real town.” Jill Lepore, author of The Mansion of Happiness: A Matter of Life and Death (Knopf), showered her support on the library, ending by paraphrasing E.B. White’s famous quote, “A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”
Several authors did make it to the ceremony to offer their remarks. David Quammen described his research for Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (Norton) took him onto rooftops and into caves, Congo Basin forests, goat diaries, racing stables, and the barns and sheds of Butte, MT. He was effusive in his thanks for libraries, and especially for databases and interlibrary loan, which brought many esoteric materials on viruses to his remote area.
Fiction medal winner Richard Ford did what writers do, he told a story. He recalled a recent encounter with a stranger in the library who asked if he knew how to spell. When Ford replied yes, the teen asked, “Does love have an ‘e’ at the end?” Ford’s observation of the library as a place where the freedom to ask questions still exists rang true.
Nonfiction medal winner Timothy Egan spoke passionately about his book’s subject: the life and work of photographer Edward Curtis (1868–1952), whose 1948 correspondence with Seattle librarian Harriet Leach served as the impetus for the discovery of Curtis’s 20-volume documentation of an aboriginal people’s history, The North American Indian (Taschen, reprint edition: 2005; originally issued in a limited edition from 1907–30). Egan quoted Curtis’s goal according to Leach, “I want to make them live forever.”
The $5,000 award is supported by an endowment from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and relies upon the efforts of a tireless selection committee. This year the committee consisted of Nancy Pearl (chair), Brad Hooper (adult books editor, Booklist), Danise G. Hoover (Hunter Coll. Lib., CUNY New York), A. Isaac Pulver (director, Saratoga Springs P.L., NY), Nonny Schlotzhauer (Penn State Univ. Lib.), Donna Seaman (senior editor, Booklist), and Rebecca Vnuk (editor, Booklist).
For additional information on finalists: http://www.ala.org/carnegieadult/.