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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the weeks leading up to this year's National Book Awards, there was an embarrassing mix up over who was nominated in the category of Books for Young People. And the awards were criticized, as they long have been, for being too insular, too prone to nominate little known writers. None of that seemed to matter to the nominees at last night's award ceremony in New York. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Whether a first time novelist like Tea Obreht or a veteran writer like Edith Pearlman, the National Book Awards nominees were universally thrilled to see their work validated by their peers. Gary Schmidt, nominated in the young people's literature category, said what makes the nomination so special is that it's awarded by other writers.
GARY SCHMIDT: That means the world to me, that other writers who are so wonderful at their craft, think that this is worthy of recognition. How cool is that?
NEARY: Usually the winners of the fiction and non fiction awards get the most attention. But this year, a couple of poets stole the show. First, the poet John Ashbery was given the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In a wry, funny acceptance speech, he acknowledged that some people find his poetry hard to understand. When he began writing poetry, Ashbery said, he thought he was simply carrying on in the tradition of great modern artists like Picasso and Stravinsky.
JOHN ASHBERY: It was OK for those god-like figures to traffic in difficulty. But my own stuff was just a little too difficult, in fact a lot too difficult, ranking somewhere near root canal on the pleasure principle scale.
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NEARY: But Ashbery went on to say, poetry should be difficult, in the way reading is difficult. They are both pleasurable and painful, he said, because they can change a person.
In a powerful and emotional speech, accepting the award for poetry, Nikky Finney reminded the audience just how much a person can be changed by reading when she invoked the spirit of slaves who had been forbidden to read.
NIKKY FINNEY: Tonight these forbidden ones move around the room as they please, they sit at whatever table they want, wear camel colored field hats and tomato red kerchiefs. They are bold in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best, their cotton croaker sack shirts are black wash pot clean and irreverently not tucked in. Some even have come in white Victorian collars and bustiers. Some have just climbed out of the cold wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together.
NEARY: One of the poems that won Finney her award was about Hurricane Katrina. And the winner of the Fiction Award, "Salvage the Bones" by Jesmyn Ward, was also about the devastating effects of that terrible storm. Ward read an excerpt from her book at an event the night before the award ceremony.
JESMYN WARD: (Reading) Daddy, I say, and I'm surprised at how clear my voice is, how solid, how sure, like a hand that can be held in the dark. Water's in the attic. The water is faster this time. It wraps liquid fingers around my toes, my ankles, begins creeping up my calves. This is a fast seduction. The wind howls.
NEARY: In the category of Literature for Young People, Thanhha Lai won the prize for "Inside Out and Back Again," the story of a young Vietnamese girl, learning to adjust to a new life in Alabama. And the award for non-fiction went to Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve", the story of the rediscovery of an ancient poem and the effect that had on Western culture. One last award, for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community went to well-known bookseller, Mitchell Kaplan, one of the founders of the influential Miami Book Fair.
Traditional book stores struggling to survive in the digital age, says Kaplan, but he believes the future is still bright.
MITCHELL KAPLAN: I firmly believe that even with all the upheaval we find in our industry today, there's room for plenty of optimism. Writers are writing marvelous and important books, publishers are publishing them. And as every bookseller knows, readers want to know about them and they want to buy them.
NEARY: The book store said Kaplan is the link between writer and reader. Book stores build community, they are not virtual, he said, they are real places and they need to survive. Lynn Neary, NPR News New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.