The winners of the 64th National Book Awards were announced at a ceremony at Cipriani in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday evening. More than 700 members of the book community gathered for the reveal of the recipients of the 2013 awards, presented by the National Book Foundation. The winners included Cynthia Kadohata for The Thing About Luck (Young People’s Literature), Mary Szybist for Incarnadine (Poetry), George Packer for The Unwinding (Nonfiction), and James McBride for The Good Lord Bird (Fiction).
The event, emceed by TV host Mika Brzezinski, was chaired by Morgan Entrekin, Deborah Needleman, Lynn Nesbit, and Shelley Wanger.
Cynthia Kadohata, winner of the award for Young People’s Literature for The Thing About Luck (S&S/Atheneum), said that her extreme superstition kept her from preparing a formal speech, but made a point to thank her editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, and her agent, Gail Hochman.
After receiving the Poetry award for her second collection, Incarnadine (Graywolf Press), a visibly moved Mary Szybist remarked that “there’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle of course, is how much it can do, is how much it does do,” as she expressed her deep admiration of the other finalists in the category. Fiona McCrae, the publisher, said Graywolf has 4,000 copies of Incarnadine in print and are going back to press for a third printing of 7,500 with a "handsome gold seal."
George Packer, author of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), winner of the Nonfiction award, thanked publisher Jonathan Galassi and the rest of the team at the house, saying that FSG does it the “old fashioned way, which is still the best way.”
In something of an upset, James McBride won the Fiction award, the final award of the evening, for his novel, The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead Books). In a humble, gracious, and humorous speech, McBride said of the other finalists winning: “I wouldn’t have felt bad, they are fine writers, but it sure is nice to get it.” He thanked his longtime agent, Flip Brophy, and said that while experiencing personal hardship as he wrote the novel, it was always nice “to have somebody whose words I could fall into.”
In addition, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison presented the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community to Maya Angelou. Of Angelou, Morrison said, “It’s a personal pleasure to honor a friend, an artist, and a legend... in spite of her truly outrageous talents, she doesn’t summon envy.... Instead Maya Angelou inspires delight as well as awe.” Upon reading Angelou’s 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Morrison recalled that she had never seen “any woman writer more insightful or more courageous describing her life,” and credited her with giving rise to so many African-American writers that followed.
After Angelou took the stage to accept the award, she made it clear the feeling was entirely mutual. “Old folks say, it takes one to know one,” she remarked.
“Easy reading is damn hard writing,” continued Angelou. “I have been trying to tell the truth as far as I understand it, and you have honored me this evening, and I’m so grateful.” In addition to expressing deep appreciation for receiving the award from her friend Morrison, Angelou also thanked her longtime editor at Random House, Bob Loomis.
E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by National Book Award winner Victor Navasky. Navasky praised his friend’s body of work, and commended Doctorow’s efforts in service of the book writing community.
“When he does take time off from his own writing, he uses his present prestigious celebrity to advance the cause of the artist in society,” said Navasky, who then read from Doctorow’s testimony in front of Congress on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts.
In accepting the award, Doctorow spoke to the collision of technology and the book industry. “Can we expect from the Internet, infinite manifestations of human genius and human inadequacy? I think so…. Reading a book is the essence of interactivity, bringing sentences to life in the mind.”
Click here to watch an archived webcast of the event.