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May 15, 2013 BOOKLIST
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It’s normally not really big news to announce that ALA is launching a new book award. On Booklist Online, we track the annual winners of 37 book and media awards from ALA, and although we try our best to keep up, it’s entirely possible that we’ve missed a few. All of these awards have devoted followings, and all do their part in generating enthusiasm for reading and listening to great books. I’ve always felt, however, that there was one award missing from our panoply of honors. Until now, ALA has never sponsored an award that recognizes the single best work of fiction and nonfiction published for adults in a given year—an award, in other words, that would do for adult trade books and adult readers what the Newbery and Caldecott Medals do for children’s literature and young readers (and the Michael L. Printz Award does for young adult books and teen readers).
I’m thrilled to report that we now have such an award and that Booklist is a proud cosponsor. The creation of the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction was announced in early March, and for me (and, I’m sure, for quite a few others), that announcement was a dream come true. When I came to Booklist, in 1980 (a very long time ago), I was the adult books editor. It didn’t take long for me to realize that books for adults were something of a stepchild at ALA. I remember wandering the exhibit aisles at my first ALA Annual Conference as a Booklist editor, having been instructed to introduce myself to as many publishers as possible. Intimidated but game to try, I marched up to numerous booths, with my glad hand extended, only to be told that “we don’t bring any adult books or adult books staff to ALA shows.”
That situation, of course, has long since repaired itself, and there are now, at ALA and PLA conferences, a wealth of adult trade book publishers who are eager to work with librarians who serve adult readers. But even as ALA conferences opened their doors to adult books; even as the readers’-advisory renaissance—spearheaded, in large part, by our own Joyce Saricks—brought a new commitment in public libraries to developing expertise in what Joyce calls “leisure reading”; and even as such ongoing annual lists of outstanding adult books as RUSA’s Notable Books and Booklist’s Editors’ Choice came to be used by new generations of RA librarians (a term that didn’t exist when I came to Booklist)—even with all these remarkable strides in supporting, promoting, and, yes, simply reading books for adults in libraries across the country, there was still one bridge to cross. We needed a major award, not simply a list, that would single out the best book of the year for adult readers. That was the dream, and although it looked like it was destined to become, in Langston Hughes’ phrase, a deferred dream that dries up like a raisin in the sun, I’m happy to say that such an award is now a reality.
The new award has been receiving plenty of coverage in national media over the last month, but here’s a quick summary of the salient facts. Cosponsored by Booklist and RUSA (ALA’s Reference and User Services Association), the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction will be selected from a “long list” of 50 titles drawn from RUSA’s Notable Books list and our Editors’ Choice list. The medals will recognize the best single fiction and nonfiction book for adult readers published in the U.S. in the previous year. In addition to the two winners, two additional authors, short-listed in both categories, will be named finalists. The winning authors and finalists will receive cash prizes ($5,000 and $1,500 each, respectively). The medals were made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York on the occasion of the foundation’s centennial and in recognition of Andrew Carnegie’s contributions to libraries both in the U.S. and around the globe. A committee chaired by Nancy Pearl and including three Booklist editors and three former Notable Books Council members is busy reading books as we speak and will reveal the short list in May. Winners in both fiction and nonfiction will be announced at a presentation program to be held at ALA’s Annual Conference in Anaheim. (Watch for more information about where and when.) So we now have the adult book award we’ve always wanted, and it’s off to a great start, with the perfect committee chair in the irrepressible Nancy Pearl, who has become a kind of national standard-bearer for the joys of books and reading.
I have no idea what books are likely to win the 2012 “Carnegies,” a phrase I hope to hear rolling off readers’ tongues more and more in the coming months and years, but I’ve been amusing myself pondering which of the books I’ve reviewed over the past three decades might have claimed the prize had it existed a little earlier. Maybe William Kittredge’s The Willow Field (2006) or Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997) or, going farther back, Michael Malone’s Handling Sin (1984). For nonfiction, I like to think Peter Ackroyd’s magisterial biography Dickens (1991) at least would have been on the short list, and I can’t imagine a Carnegie Medal in 1987 without it going to Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (after all, I understood atomic fission for about five blissful minutes after reading Rhodes).
Maybe this is a way to give our new award a little retrospective life. E-mail me (email@example.com) your picks for a Carnegie Medal, fiction or nonfiction, in any year from 1980 to 2010, and I’ll report on the results. No, these won’t be official Carnegies, but maybe we can award the authors a box of raisins.