National Book Awards 2019 celebrate the vitality of books in our culture

A diverse group of writers was recognized by the National Book Foundation for shaping the literary landscape over the past year. 

Greg Allen/Invision/AP
Susan Choi attends the 70th National Book Awards ceremony on Nov. 20, 2019, in New York. Ms. Choi’s book, “Trust Exercise,” won this year’s National Book Award for fiction.

It's been called the literary equivalent of Oscars Night.

On Nov. 20, the 70th National Book Awards were held in New York at a benefit dinner. I'll get to the winners in a moment.

But first, what caught my attention was the theme of the evening: the cultural importance of literature, and of telling truth to power. Books were also recognized as offering respite from daily distractions.

“I agreed to judge this prize for partly selfish reasons. I wanted an excuse to shut out the news and to block out the increasingly insane chatter of social media,” said author Danzy Senna, in her remarks before introducing the winner of the prize for fiction. She added: “I had a romantic notion that through reading – prolonged, excessive reading – I might return to a younger, pre-election self.” 

The emcee was actor-director LeVar Burton, who hosted the long-running series PBS series “Reading Rainbow.” In his opening, Mr. Burton, who is African American, gave a shout-out to his mother, the first in her family to go to college, saying, “For me to be a well-known literary advocate in this nation, a place where only a scant few generations ago it would have been illegal for me to read, is no small thing.” He continued, “I believe literature is the birthright of every single one of us,” and he added that if you can read, “you are free.” He concluded by saying, “It is storytelling that holds our civilization together.” 

This event is hosted each November by the National Book Foundation, whose mission includes keeping literature at the forefront of public consciousness and increasing the legions of book lovers. Oh, and bestowing the coveted gold sticker on the jacket of the winning books.

The 2019 winners are:

Fiction

“Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi

Nonfiction

“The Yellow House” by Sarah M. Broom

Poetry

“Sight Lines” by Arthur Sze

Translated Literature

“Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming” 

Translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet 

Written by László Krasznahorkai

Young People’s Literature

“1919: The Year That Changed America” by Martin W. Sandler

To the winners, and to the finalists, congratulations! And to all the writers out there who keep working at their craft, contributing their thoughts and dreams to sustain our culture, thanks and keep the books coming!

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