Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Brenda Wineapple Picks William Gass

By Brenda Wineapple

What is your favorite National Book Critics Circle finalist of all time? The first NBCC winners, honored in 1975 for books published in 1974, were E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, fiction), John Ashbery (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, poetry), R.W.B. Lewis for his biography of Edith Wharton, and Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory, criticism). In 2014 the National Book Critics Circle prepares to celebrate nearly forty years of the best work selected by the critics themselves, and also to launch the new John Leonard award for first book. So we're looking back at the winners and finalists, all archived on our website, and we've asked our members and former honorees to pick a favorite. Here's the twenty-sixth in our latest in six years of NBCC Reads surveys.

How to choose just one? Especially among such variety, such openness, such poetry, such shine: A. R. Ammons and Alice Munro, Vladimir Nabokov and Joan Didion, Robert A. Caro and James Merrill, Bernard Bailyn and Guy Davenport and David Bromwich and Elizabeth Bishop, Thomas Disch and Cynthia Ozick, Penelope Fitzgerald and John Hollander, Rebecca Solnit and Richard Howard. And that's to name just a few. One? Okay, for the sake of the game, I'll choose William Gass, and though nominated more than once, I'll take the finalist The World Within the Word: Essays simply because I learned so much from what he said and how he said it, both at the same time, indivisible, which is what in 1978 I very much needed to know.

Brenda Wineapple’s newest book, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, was published in August 2013 by HarperCollins. Her other books include White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, a winner of the Washington Arts Club National Award for arts writing; Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner; Sister Brother Gertrude and Leo Stein; and Hawthorne: A Life, which received the Ambassador Award of the English-speaking Union for the Best Biography of 2003 and the Julia Ward Howe Prize from the Boston Book Club. Elected in 2012 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wineapple is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review and The Nation, among others, She is now writing a meditation about biography.