By this time next week, the National Book Award winners will be chosen and announced. I’ve had so many thoughts throughout the process of being a judge, but we all commit to not talking publicly about the inner workings of that process. So I can’t tell you how we arrived at our five finalists, what books were close and why, etc. But I can share a bit how it felt for me, and what I came away with.
At first, most of my brain space about the job was taken over by fear. I think I can say there were over 230 books entered in the young people’s lit category. I put a lot of energy into practical concerns about organizing my life around my reading, and coming up with some kind of schedule that would lead to the successful completion of the task. Once I got into the rhythm of the work, I began to feel other things:
- Awe at the huge range of creative gifts represented in the entries.
- Joy upon discovering that though I sometimes feel jaded about publishing, I can still get lost in a great read, still be moved to laughter or tears or delight or fear.
- Surprise that I could like and love types of books I’ve previously claimed are not my thing: fantasy, historical fiction, romance, gothic ghost stories, horror, epic adventure, science fiction.
- Naturally, this surprise was followed by humility and regret, thinking about the lines I have drawn, consciously or unconsciously, around what makes “literature.” I fear/know I’ve missed out on some great reading experiences over the years because of those lines, and from here on out seek to correct that.
- Respect for the hard work of writers and editors and designers, everything that goes into the creation of a finished book no matter what you think of the result.
Most of all, what I feel now, having been through this process, is: awards and good reviews are nice to have, and probably good for your career, and should be celebrated. If you get them, be proud. Other than that, they don’t mean too terribly much. They certainly don’t mean books that don’t get them are failures, are unworthy, or should be dismissed.
Just look at the variety in all of the year-end “best of” lists. Clearly, as a community of readers and writers and critics, we don’t even have consensus on what good writing is, let alone what stories we’re drawn to or what we think books should do or say in the world.
The judging process reminded me what a mysterious, personal transaction reading is. At first, that stressed me out. How were we going to get through these books and make decisions if we’re all so different? By the end, I marveled at really what a cool thing it is that each person can connect so differently across such a broad range of material, and that gives me hope for each of the books I’ve written and the ones I’ve yet to write.
Richard Rodriguez says that the reader re-creates the book when he reads it. If that’s true, and I think it probably is, that means 100 readers could have 100 different experiences of the same book. Which can be frustrating, but is also kind of magical and also tells you something about what it is to be a person, an individual.
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, and from then through the rest of the year will be blogging about my memorable reads from 2010. Some of them were NBA entries, but not all. I can’t say which are which. But it really doesn’t matter – the point is the joy of discovery, and connection, and then sharing those discoveries and connections, making the offer to you to pick up the book and enter into your own relationship with it.