The 2008 National Book Awards ceremony was held Wednesday night at Cipriani on Wall Street in downtown New York City. Cipriani was a new location for the awards. Host Eric Bogosian opened the ceremony by noting that Barack Obama’s win in the Presidential election is good news for many, including those attending the awards ceremony because he “is a reader and a writer.” Obama’s election was, in fact, a recurring theme among the evening's speakers.
Peter Matthiessen won in the fiction category for Shadow Country. "I had a hard time," he said in his acceptance speech, "persuading people that fiction was my natural thing, not nonfiction." Alexander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project and Marilynne Robinson’s Home were front-runners. Salvatore Scibona’s The End, a debut novel published by independent publisher Graywolf Press, was also nominated. Gail Godwin presented the award.
In nonfiction, Annette Gordon Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello took the award. Reed opened her acceptance speech saying that “today is my birthday.” Jane Meyer’s The Dark Side and Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute were also closely watched contenders. Author and editor of Washington Post Book World Marie Arana presented the award. She praised all the finalists for their “uncompromising commitment to truth.”
Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire won for poetry. Frank Bidart’s Watching the Spring Festival and Patricia Smith’s collection about Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler, were among the nominees. The award was presented by former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, who called poetry “perhaps the most physical and bodily of all arts.”
In young people’s literature, Judy Blundell won for What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic Press). “You probably don’t know me,” said Blundell, “but I’ve worked for most of the houses in this room. This is the first book I’ve put my name on.” The award was presented by Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket series.
There were two special awards given. The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters was presented to Maxine Hong Kingston, who mourned the recent loss of the critic John Leonard in her acceptance speech. The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community went to Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, who spoke of the moment when Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was “vindicated” by a Chicago judge as the happiest moment of his career at Grove.