The First NBAs

March 16: The first National Book Awards were presented on this day in 1950. The non-fiction winner was Ralph L. Rusk for The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson; the poetry winner was William Carlos Williams for two books, Paterson: Book III and Selected Poems; the fiction winner was Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm.


Fifteen recent NBA winners and finalists are interviewed in The Book That Changed My Life, most of them offering not one influential book but a truckload. One exception is Don Delillo, who reveals that he read very little when growing up, and "did not have a strong sense of writerly ambition." Though he does remember the precise moment when he got the call to begin his first novel, Americana (1971), in which a village street's "stillness and wistfulness" became "a counterpoint of lost innocence":

I was in Southwest Harbor on Mount Desert Island in Maine, looking down a street filled with elms and maples and old homes. And there was something in the moment. Some mystery that made me feel I had to write about it. And even though it took me, oh, I don't know, two months before I even put word on paper, even the title of the novel was implicit in that moment.

Cynthia Ozick's interview places her in a different group, among those born-to-read and born-to-write:

I always wrote, and I always had writing as an ambition. …I remember composing a poem at the age of five, before, I could read or write; my mother was my amanuensis. I retain only the opening two words: "O moon!" …As I grew older, the images of bleak yet rapturous imposture—particularly in fairy tales—aroused an inescapable sensation of wanting to write. Princesses turned into mute swans, princes into beasts…. I began to pursue that truly voluptuous sensation in middle childhood. I recall having written a story at the age of eleven, and afterward finding it an embarrassment; so I signed it, self-consciously, "By the Young Author, Age Nine." Another imposture. It might, I thought, have been adequate for a nine-year-old, but not for a serious writer of eleven.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysley Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
In the Light of What We Know

Zia Haider Rahman's mystery of a brilliant Bangladeshi mathematician's past barrels through the Ivy League, London high finance, and spy-haunted Afghanistan in a page-turning tale of exile, intrigue and the price of friendship. A Discover Great New Writers selection.

The People's Platform

Once touted as the foundation for tomorrow's digital democracy, the Internet is increasingly ruled by a few corporate giants, while millions of contributors till its fields for free. Astra Taylor looks at why the web has failed to deliver a communitarian cyberscape, and offers a compelling case for restoring its original vision.

A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.