How the National Book Awards Got it Right

In News by Dennis Abrams

James McBride's NBA-winner "Good Lord Bird" is deserving of the prize in every sense.

James McBride’s NBA-winner “Good Lord Bird” is deserving of the prize in the best sense of the term.

By Dennis Abrams

Last night, the 2013 National Book Awards were presented in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Young People’s Literature, and Poetry. And…the winners are:

(Among the night’s other winners, The New Yorker cited E. L. Doctorow, who was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, noting that that he “spoke solemnly about the rip-tide change that the Internet has wrought on language, and questioned how much of it a writer must absorb: “When was the last time you heard the word mouse and thought of a small, gray rodent? When was the last time you heard the word Web and thought of a spider?””

At, Laura Miller, who last year called the NBA’s “irrelevant,” said that at least when it came to the winners for fiction and nonfiction, that the National Book Award got it right.

Of McBride she wrote in part, “The Good Lord Bird is in fact an ideal NBA winner in the best sense of the term: accessible, smart, ambitious and besotted with Americans’ freewheeling use of our language. The novel is so entertaining, it’s easy to miss the audacity of its premise: A comic picaresque narrated by a slave, when 1) slavery isn’t funny and 2) the roving, carefree life of the typical picaresque hero is pretty much the antithesis of the slave’s lot.”

Of Packer (which is one of my favorite books of the year by far), she wrote, “…George Packer’s The Unwinding is similarly remarkable, a collection of profiles reflecting the social and economic history of America over the past 35 years that pointedly refrains from making sweeping polemical arguments about ‘what’s gone wrong.’ The lives of a factory worker-turned-activist, a disillusioned lawyer, a Silicon venture capitalist and a North Carolina tobacco farmer, among others, are allowed to speak for themselves. In a culture in which everyone is perpetually shrieking their political opinions, it’s hard to convey just how refreshing this is. Hell, you might even learn something.”

Miller concluded by asking, “What’s the place of the book in a world of digital communication? In these two choices, at least, the National Book Awards suggest that books are where grown-ups go when they want to use all of their minds and hearts.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.