This past year I served on the selection committee for the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction & Nonfiction—a task I undertook with a good amount of dread.
If you aren’t yet familiar with the Carnegies, the annual adult book prize awarded by the ALA, it’s understandable. The awards are still in their infancy—this is just their third year—but they’ve been a long time in coming. For ages, librarians who work with adults have looked on with envy at the huge success and prestige of the ALA’s children and teen prizes—the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz. “What’s wrong with us?” we wondered. “Why don’t we have a similar award?”
This feeling was amplified by the fact that librarians have also largely been shut out of the juries for the major adult book awards. We have long wanted a role in identifying the best books each year—even if we can all agree that it’s pretty much impossible to name one book the best in a given category. After all, selecting a best book is a tremendously subjective process, and the dynamics of the selection committee (including the occasional opinionated juror) come in to play as well. Faced with a crazy range of titles, comparisons often seem futile.
But, hey, if critics and authors can take a swing at it, why not librarians?
A Sense of Dread
Picking a winner can be a challenge, but the decision to join the Carnegie committee wasn’t easy either. I dreaded the committee because, over the years, I’ve changed as a reader. Where once I read three, four, or even five books a week, now it’s more like one.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m reading all the time. But like a lot of people, I read more and more online. No, it’s not all Buzzfeed quizzes (“Which city should I be living in?”) and cat videos (okay, a few); I’m usually reading long-form nonfiction. I tend to head for a book when the topic really speaks to me. I couldn’t get a hold of Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear fast enough, for example, or Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us. I still enjoy fiction, especially when I like the author. But I’ve grown skittish about taking on new novelists. And when considering whether to sign up for the Carnegie committee, I worried about whether I could really read so many books in one year.
I was also anxious because of the Carnegies’ unique process. The process is based on Booklist’s Editors’ Choice and the Notable Books List, which each year culminates with a selection of “very good, very readable, and at times very important fiction and nonfiction... for the adult reader,” selected by ALA’s Notable Books Council. It’s smart to build on other work in the association. But these lists—which, when combined, number about 50 titles—are released in December and January, and Carnegie deliberations are in late March.
Do the math: if you haven’t been reading all year, trying to divine what will be on those lists, and if you don’t already have 20 or 30 of those 50 titles under your belt when the Carnegie committee work begins, you’re going to need to get your Xanax prescription re-upped.
For most of the last year, I’ve begged off social engagements, because I spent much of my time in bed, reading. My friends are quick to ask the obvious: does the world really need another book award? Yes, I say—more than ever.
For one thing, book awards keep books in the conversation, which is always a good thing. More significantly, the awards, and especially the shortlists, are important tools for discovery—increasingly useful in an age in which fewer people read reviews, either because they’re too busy, or because so many newspapers have slashed book coverage. Award-winning titles quickly trickle down to individuals and book groups, who are ready to take them on and see what the hubbub is all about.
Book awards also encourage readers to step out of their reading ruts and try new things. Hilary Mantel’s fans are a great example of this; many would never have been interested in the author’s series about 16th-century England, were it nor for her two Man Booker prizes.
Finally, today’s book awards stand as reminders to future readers—whether in four years or 40—of what we valued and considered to be our finest works.
Book awards also have their own personalities. The Pulitzers are blue chip: solid, beyond reproach, except for the years when the judges don’t select a winner in a category. But the Pulitzers are also generally unsurprising—except for this year, when Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won (I assumed the book was too darn popular to take home the award).
The National Book Critics Circle Awards are often the most idiosyncratic, which makes sense—it must take the unusual and offbeat to tickle the palettes of professional critics.
The National Book Awards, chosen by writers, somehow manage to feel like personal, and passionate, recommendations, and not compromises born out of a committee. The NBAs inevitably get me to read. And, really, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
It’s too early to say what characteristics the Carnegies will take on. My guess is that they will devote as much attention to the experience of reading as to the “exceptional literary merit” of the books considered. Not that the Carnegies are by any means “readers’ choice” awards—it’s just that the Carnegies are selected by people who are, in general, reading books the way the public reads them. And, as librarians, we are also in touch with a wide swath of readers across the country; the most remarkable books are the ones that people have a burning need to discuss, or those that they’re eager to recommend.
My opinions as a juror were informed as much by my many conversations with library patrons as by the solitary hours I spent reading and reflecting.
My initial dread, as it turns out, was uncalled for. Despite the demands of a busy life, I found the time to read, and I quickly fell into a rhythm, reading several hours each day before work, which allowed me to plow through title after title. And as I read, I rediscovered the sense of peace and contentment that comes from reading in long stretches—something I’d promised myself I would never lose, but that was perhaps beginning to slip away.
And although I’ve reviewed books for years, I also found my critical skills sharpening. Nothing makes you more articulate than knowing you are going to have to sell a book you love to the rest of your committee.
But, best of all, the experience has made me a much better librarian. Looking for some reading advice? Bring it on. I’ve just finished reading 200 books. I should be able to find you something.
What Personality Will the ALA’s Carnegie Medals Take On?
It may be too early to tell, but the previous winners of the ALA’s Carnegie Medals for Excellence hold a clue. The inaugural winners in 2012 winners were Anne Enright, for her novel The Forgotten Waltz (Norton), and Robert K. Massie, in nonfiction, for Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House). The 2013 winners were Richard Ford, for his novel Canada (Ecco), and Timothy Egan, in nonfiction, for Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
The shortlist for the Carnegie medals was revealed in April (www.ala.org/awardsgrants/carnegieadult). The 2014 award winners will be announced on June 28, at the ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas.