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 todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

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