Saluting Barbara Hoffert

By Eric Banks

Photo of Barbara Hoffert holding trophy The 2022 National Book Critics Circle Awards, New School Auditorium, New York, New York, March 23, 2023. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

Since it was founded nearly five decades ago, the National Book Critics Circle has relied on the hard, and unremunerated, work of its members, particularly those elected to serve on its board of directors. Yet there is a significant distinction between those whose dedication makes it possible for the NBCC to get all the work done year in, year out, and those special few individuals who, through their great commitment, have had a truly transformational effect on the aspirations and achievements of the organization. It is those very rare individuals who have made a difference that the NBCC seeks to honor with its new NBCC Service Award, being given this year for the first time in recognition of extraordinary work on behalf of the organization: the level of service it recognizes puts me in mind of one of former U.S. Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov’s finest poems, indeed one of the greatest two-line poems in the history of the English language, titled Bacon & Eggs: “The chicken contributes, but the pig gives his all.”

Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

What an honor and a delight it is for me to announce the name of the inaugural recipient of the NBCC Service Award this evening, one who truly over many years has indeed given her all: former NBCC president Barbara Hoffert. Barbara has worn so many different hats at the NBCC that one worries about overlooking a chapeau here or there. In addition to serving as president of the organization in 1997 and 1998, halcyon years for NBCC membership, she has fielded virtually every position in the NBCC lineup, from treasurer in her early days on the NBCC board to VP for awards a decade ago, among the most onerous and burdensome positions in the organization, which she executed with her signature no-sweat aplomb.

It was in that latter capacity as VP for awards that I first got to know Barbara, who made my own days as NBCC president so much easier with her effortless management of the awards process—from ordering and tracking the mountain of books the board requested (this in the pre-PDF days!), including the last-minute 20 or 30 titles that the more dilatory board members invariably cooked up in the waning days of December (which is always a wonderful time to try and reach book publicists), to shepherding the herd of winners and worthies across the stage at the annual ceremony. My experience is decidedly not unique: Barbara makes everyone else’s work shine, often without their being aware of it and certainly without the public acknowledgment she has long deserved. Tonight is the opportunity for the NBCC to show its gratitude—to publicly acknowledge what a debt the NBCC owes Barbara for her tireless contributions over the years. Those contributions run the gamut, from the big to the small—as Jane Ciabattari reminded me the other day, they include such unheralded gestures as writing the press releases when John Freeman, as NBCC president in the late oughts, marshalled support for the ambitious nationwide Campaign to Save Book Reviewing; and even to providing a meeting space for the NBCC board during her long tenure at the Library Journal, where she continues to serve as editor of the all-important Library Journal Prepub Alert, covering hundreds of titles for library professionals each year.

In the NBCC newsletter in which Barbara’s presidency was first announced, back in 1997, she was singled out for praise for her warmth, her inclusiveness, and her accessibility, as well as her unflagging efforts on behalf of the organization. It’s a relief to realize that in a period of monumental change in the book world and in the universe of book reviewing, some things remain the same. Barbara not only helped shape the awards format we enjoy tonight, she not only guided the NBCC into the new century, she also remains a paragon of collegiality and camaraderie. Please join in me in saluting Barbara Hoffert.

Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan