"The 70th! That's a big number!" With all the quippy accuracy one would expect of Star Trek: The Next Generation's Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge, actor LeVar Burton opened a landmark National Book Awards at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City's financial district before reminding a dapper publishing industry audience of why, exactly, he went on to host Reading Rainbow. "I will confess that I have had a long-held dream of being in this room on this night," Burton said. "I've pictured it in waking and sleeping dreams for years. But in those dreams, I was sitting where you are, as the guest of an extremely talented writer, enjoying the show."
Not so tonight, and with Burton as host, the 70th NBAs got off to a celebratory start—but quickly returned to the seriousness of the matter at hand. "If you can read in at least one language you are, in my definition, free," Burton said after noting that, only a few generations ago, an African-American man would not even be allowed to learn to read, let alone host a literary awards ceremony. "No one can pull the wool over your eyes. You can't be fooled by alternative facts; you can be a learner for life." He added: "Literature and its place in civilization is unparalleled. It is the stories that we tell each other that define who we are, why we're here, what our mission is in life. It is the storytelling that holds our civilization together."
And to the mind of Ann Patchett, novelist and owner of Nashville's Parnassus Books, few are as central to the perpetuation of storytelling as outgoing American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher, whom Patchett introduced prior to his accepting this year's Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. "I would pretty much go anywhere to say nice things about Oren Teicher, considering all the wonderful things he's done for me—considering all of the wonderful things he's done for all of us," Patchett said. " I bet he's been in more bookstores in this country than any other person ever, and he's treated us all equally," she continued, adding: "Every Christmas, he goes and works at a bookstore. He worked at my bookstore, Parnassus Books, and let me tell you, friends, this is a man who knows how to sell a book."
Teicher, accepting the award, said that "working on behalf of indie booksellers these past 30 years has been a dream job," adding: "I've never, ever not wanted to go to work. The creativity, ingenuity, and resilience of booksellers is nothing less than remarkable. And while I know the NBA has singled me out for this award...I accept this award on behalf of thousands of indie booksellers across the country."
Next up was famous reader and infamous director—or possibly vice versa—John Waters, who introduced the winner of this year's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Edmund White, with some interesting observations. "He's pissed off Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal, and the world is a better place for it," Waters said. "It seems Mr. White has won and deserved more awards than Meryl Streep, yet he never makes the public feel stupid, unless they are asleep in front of the television not reading." And the pièce de résistance: "Reading is the perfect fetish when Edmund White is your literary top."
White gave Waters a run for his money. "Writers love to complain about how difficult it is to write. Maybe they feel guilty about not having a fulltime job," he said. "Stendahl once remarked that writing fiction is not a full-time job. Only writers as prolific as Balzac and Joyce Carol Oates claim that it is. The rest of us blurb other books and write emails. How else to fill up the obligatory eight hours?" But it was not all laughs, with White recalling how difficult it was to be a gay lovelist in the pre-Stonewall 1960s before noting: "Even the National Book Awards has seen fit to honor a gay novelist, and for that I am very grateful. To go from the most maligned writer to deeply honored in half a century is distinguished indeed."
After dinner, National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas and chairman of the board David Steinberger took to the stage for their customary remarks. "Tonight is not only a moment to look back at 70 years of awards," Steinberger said. "It's a moment to think about where we are, and who we are, right now." Lucas continued: "What was once insular is now unifying, and what was once exclusive is now inclusive. The work we do today allows us to showcase the sheer breadth and depth of the American experience...and reminds us of our shared humanity." She added: "The Foundation's work is based on a very simple premise: that books, and doing this, matters."
Burton then called An Na, chair of the Young People's Literature category judging panel, to the stage, where she announced that Martin W. Sandler was the winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for 1919: The Year That Changed America (Bloomsbury).
"I've got three minutes, and I can kill that in an hour," Sandler said, to raucous applause. "I'm particularly honored to be in the company of my four fellow nominees. I will tell you, as the elder statesman of that group, I am so confident in the state of young people's literature." He added: "I've written 60 books, and I hope to write 60 more, and I plan to be back here to celebrate them with you."
Burton, retaking the stage, joked: "Proof positive that if you just keep typing, shit happens!" He then introduced Idra Novey, chair of the Translated Literature category judging panel, who noted that "the number of tremendous translators working today in this country is breathtaking." She then announced the winners of the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature: Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (New Directions Press).
Of his fellow nominees, Krasznahorkai said: "I implore their forgiveness. I ask them not to hate me. Not today. And tomorrow, why would they?" He added, "It is a tremendous joy that through our translators we can cross these heavy borders—we too can be home in America. Finally, I give my thanks to unavoidable happenstance for leading me here to all of you."
Burton, upon welcoming the chair of the Poetry judging panel, Mark Wunderlich, to the stage to much applause from one corner of the hall, quipped: "All the people who can rhyme are in that part of the room." Wunderlich, after taking the stage, said: "As long as the moon rises in the night sky, or people love each other or break each other's hearts, poetry will matter." He then announced that Arthur Sze had won the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry for Sight Lines (Copper Canyon Press).
"We need poetry now more than ever," Sze said upon accepting his award. "I believe poetry is an essential language. It helps us slow down, see clearly, feel deeply, and realize what truly matters."
Jeff Sharlet, chair of the Nonfiction judging panel, noted that he never liked the term "nonfiction," when he took the stage to announce the winner. He prefers, instead, he said, Marianne Moore's 1919 description of her poetry: "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." He then announced the award's winner, to thunderous applause: Sarah M. Broom's The Yellow House (Grove Press).
"The magnitude of feeling in this room just reminds me, being here, of the distance I've come," Broom said, before tearily thanking her mother: "She was always wolfing down words, insatiable, which is how I learned that words were a kind of sustenance... that words were the best map." She added: "I am in this room—semicolon—and so is my mother."
The final award, for fiction, historically the most eagerly anticipated award of the night (which, thanks to the reverse alphabetical order of the award presentations, is traditionally kept for last), was introduced by Fiction judging panel chair Danzy Senna. She thanked all authors present for "doing this fearless and sometimes lonely work" before announcing that Susan Choi had won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction for Trust Exercise (Henry Holt).
Tearing up, Choi thanked last year's award winner, Sigrid Nunez, who "told me I had to write something down." She continued: "The longer I write books and teach writing for a living, the more I'm struck by how it's its own reward, given what we're facing today.... I find it an astonishing privilege that this is what I get to do for a living."
This story has been updated for clarity.