Critical Mass

Stay Tuned for the Next….658 Weeks

By John Freeman

READING is a joy, but it's also — for so many of us — a map of our future years. How often in conversation a book will come up, snag our curiosity only to trickle back down into that untapped aqueduct upon which so many current books draw. Visits to a bookstore do not always resurrect this moment — for there, amidst the Potter and the Powell, the venti decaf vanilla lattes, an insentient sea of titles swims towards you.




One of the great functions of book criticism, then, is to give you safe passage through these waters to one book worth reading. The same goes for the National Book Critics Circle Award — for thirty-two years the NBCC has tried to pick out and honor the best works of literature. We do not bestow money with this prize, but rather hope a group of working critics drawing upon an association of 700 voices can lend a certain sustaining value to what we chose — particularly by putting copies of the book into hands of readers.



Over time, given how busy and prize cluttered our media has become, this task becomes slightly more difficult — a difficulty which is matched by the trouble one has in picking out a book. What to read? Here is our not-so-modest, pie in the sky solution. For the next ten years, the NBCC will be dedicating one week of this blog to one of our former finalists or winners. Each week you will find original essays, interviews, remembrances of the author, Q&As with critics and links to reviews which appeared upon publication for all 658 of our former finalists and winners, from Elizabeth Hardwick's novel “Sleepless Nights” to Robert Duncan's volume, “Ground Work,” and everything in between.



Our first essay — Adam Kirsch writing on Robert Lowell's 1977 poetry winner, “Day by Day” — will appear tomorrow, kicking off a Lowell week, followed by pieces by numerous Balakian criticism winners, award-winning novelists, poets, authors of narrative nonfiction, biographers, and several NBCC winning authors. Many of these pieces will be written by current NBCC members as well. Time being infinite, we invite you to read along and chime in. But for those of you who do sleep, eat and work on occasion, we hope this just makes for good reading. In an ideal world, we'd have time read all of these books. But as Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend in 1932, “The divine delight of a really good review is that one has read the book.”


–John Freeman