The envelope, please

No one at the National Book Critics Circle Awards ceremony in New York last week wore a swan - or even a tuxedo. In fact, the most impressively dressed attendants, a few firemen quietly protesting the nomination of William Langewiesche's "American Ground," didn't even come inside.

The ceremony, still charmingly low-tech in The Age of Pageantry and PowerPoint, was a perfect reflection of the literature it honored: moving, smart, and witty.

Samantha Power, whose "Problem from Hell" won the general nonfiction award (a relief that sent the firemen home), insisted with heartfelt sincerity that any of us could have written her 640-page treatise on genocide if we'd had the same friends.

When the essayist William Gass rose to accept the criticism award, he noted that he was fulfilling an obligation made in 1996 when he'd been unable to pick up his second NBCC award. "If I win a third time," he'd promised, "I'll show up."

Not everyone could make it, unfortunately. Janet Browne sent a note of thanks written with Victorian restraint to accept the award for her biography of Charles Darwin. And Nan Talese read a witty letter from Ian McEwan, which expressed the British author's astonishment that his super-literary novel "Atonement" had won such praise from American critics.

The poet B.H. Fairchild seemed to put us in our place when he began his acceptance speech by reminding everyone that, in the long run, these prizes don't mean much. "But by God," he thundered, "in the short run they certainly mean something. It took over 30 years for me to get a New York City editor to read my manuscript!"

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