I was very excited last week to fly off to New York (my first visit in 20 years!) so that I could come back and tell you about my first meeting as a member of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) board. But I found that I can’t say a thing: What happens in the board meeting stays in the board meeting.
Fortunately, it was not all that thrilling: committee assignments, some general chatter, lots of coffee.
But I can tell you about the night before: the awards ceremony.
The NBCC is a professional organization of book critics and book review editors. There are about 700 members, and a board of 23. The group does a lot of things — generates conversations, maintains a website and busy social media presence, hosts readings and panels. But the big thing is the awards.
Since 1974, the NBCC has honored the best books published in the United States each year. The judges (book critics all) read widely and deeply — not just books published by the big guys, but books published by small presses and literary presses.
Book critics love books, and maybe above all else we love discovering books. I found it thrilling a few years ago when Edith Pearlman’s collection “Binocular Vision,” published by Lookout Press, won the NBCC fiction prize.
The four runners-up in fiction that year were all worthy books, all published by the big guys in New York, but Lookout Books is tiny: It publishes just two books a year. Two. (Some years, one.)
This year, the ceremony was on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day at the New School in New York City. Minnesota was well represented, with books from Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Press in the mix.
I had nothing to do with the choosing of the finalists or winners; my tenure on the board began the following morning. So all I had to do was find a seat, and enjoy.
The ceremony moved briskly. It had a sense of fun: There were whistles and cheers when winners were announced, and someone who was sitting in the front row leapt to his feet several times, waving his arms in joy.
Book critics and shy authors are not generally accustomed to standing in front of a large crowd at a podium, and the speeches were brief and heartfelt.
Kirstin Valdez Quade, author of “Night at the Fiestas,” won the John Leonard Prize for a debut book. She seemed grateful, and moved: “These are people who know books.”
Sam Quinones, who won the nonfiction prize for “Dreamland,” said, “I turned this book in and told my wife, ‘I don’t know if this book is any good, but I just can’t write it anymore.’ ” (It’s good.)
But the most wonderful moments were when Wendell Berry was on stage accepting a lifetime achievement award. Graceful, thoughtful and articulate, Berry — a farmer, poet, novelist and environmental activist — was the soul of literate.
Berry noted that a long ago review of one of his books called it “an attempt by the periphery to speak to the center.” Berry didn’t take offense; he pondered.
“The center,” he said, is urban, “the periphery, then, being the country itself, the farms, forests and mines, from which the nation lives, but of which the nation is largely ignorant, which it has too often used wastefully and with small thanks to the people who have done the fundamental work.”
(You can read his full speech, and find the list of winners, at bookcritics.org.)
It was a wonderful speech, well-received (I think the guy in the front row jumped up again), in a room and an evening steeped in the love of books.