For those of you who couldn’t be at last night’s awards ceremony, here is John Freeman’s welcoming speech in his last evening as NBCC president:
Thank you Robert, thank you everyone for coming – thank you to the New School.
And thank you to the board of the NBCC, who have elected me as their representative . It’s been an honor, and a challenge, and a delight—and a learning experience.
I’d also like to thank three people in particular, at the NBCC, without whom, we’d probably be sitting at a folding table in some church basement, not here.
-Barbara Hoffert, who almost single-handedly put together these awards
-Jennifer Reese, our treasurer, who has done virtually all the back-end work of keeping the NBCC running (and keeping me in slippers and champagne)
That’s right, the president’s discretionary fund…
-And especially Jane Ciabattari, our vp of membership.
For the past five years, when you’ve heard about the NBCC, you’ve probably read we had a membership of 700.
Well, that was sort of like publisher’s ‘announced first printings’ of 100,000.
Three years ago we scrubbed our roster and found old members, fake members, and yes, well, even a few dead ones.
In reality, we were lucky to have 300.
Here it is in 2008 our membership is beginning to feel like a small battalion. Last month it hit 800 and continues to grow.
So what’s changed? Obviously, the rampant, cynical, bottom-line drive cutbacks in book reviews have gotten people involved.
Yes, perhaps to save their jobs—but who says, take my job, please?—but there have also been enormous change in the critical landscape.
Newspapers business models have changed, people get their news differently, and there are hints that people are reading less.
It sounds like a futuristic problem, but in truth, we’ve been here before.
In the 1950s, at the dawn of television, with criticism climbing up its own navel, and reading surveys full of grim stats, Randall Jarrell had this to say about the fact that half of all Americans read no book.
“I picture to myself that reader—non-reader, rather; one man out of every two—and I reflect, with shame: ‘Our poems are too hard for him.’ But so, too, are ‘Treasure Island,’ ‘Peter Rabbit,’ pornographic novels—any book whatsoever. The authors of the world have been engaged in a sort of conspiracy to drive this American away from books; have in 77 million out of 160 million cases, succeeded. A sort of dream situation often occurs to me in which I call to this imaginary figure, ‘Why don’t you read books?’—and he always answers, after looking at me steadily for a long time: ‘Huh?’”
That was 43 years ago.
And since then, partly through Jarrell’s example, criticism has improved. It tore off the tweed and put on some breathable fabric.
And it got active.
When a publishing strike kept the New York Times Book Review off stands, the late Barbara Epstein, Robert Silvers, and Jason Epstein founded the New York Review of Books, which remains a beacon for the intellectual engagement with books.
We have reached another threshold moment in American culture. There is no newspaper strike. But many of these institutions seem content to immolate themselves.
So it’s been the NBCC’s mission over the past two years to stand up against this idiocy, and provide something new. We’ve turned our blog, Critical Mass, into a full-fledged publication, with essays, interviews, lists, and links to what’s out there. We’ve hosted more than 50 events in nearly two dozen states.
But most importantly, we’ve endeavored to engage with the best of what’s being published.
As Jarrell said, “by denying that such a thing as Excellence can exist…we help to destroy it ourselves.”
Tonight is the culmination of our effort to find what is truly excellent. As important as criticism is, it is nothing without great work to inspire it, to provoke it, to challenge us to say something meaningful.
Otherwise, that tweed would start coming back like kudzu.
The thirty books we’re here to celebrate do that, and more. They remind us why reading, in spite of all the grisly stats, remains resilient.
Great literature doesn’t depend on criticism to get written.
So even if every newspaper section shut down, and no one ever reviewed a book again, and Oprah redirected her energy into selling perfume, novels and poems and histories and biographies would be written.
Great works demand to be put down on paper. They make their own readers, and their own reality.
As William Burroughs said of Jack Kerouac, “[he] opened a million coffee bars/and sold a million pairs of Levi’s to both sexes.”
It remains to be seen what the writers we have collected tonight will do, but one thing is for sure: they are our past and our future, they are our shining storytellers.
They are the best of 2007.
And now let me turn it over to Celia McGee, who will introduce the winner of our Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, Sam Anderson, the man who traveled in their wake most elegantly.