Did you know that there were more than 150 books about New York City published last year? Given this prodigious output, the New York Society Library, in hosting the New York City Book Awards, makes a significant contribution by directing Big Apple lovers to books that "evoke the spirit or enhance the appreciation of New York City." The 17th annual awards ceremony this May was my first, but it won't be my last. This is a literary event I'll surely try catch in the future.
Part of the evening's charm stemmed from the grace of both the presenters' and awardees' remarks. Roger Pasquier, the Awards Jury Chair, set the stage by describing the selection process. Individual jurists read a wide selection of nominated titles and eliminate "error ridden and poorly written" books at the outset. The ten members of the selection committee then all read the remaining titles that form the finalists' core and determine the winners by unaninmous vote. The New York Book Awards Jury is not bound to make awards in specific categories each year. They thus neatly sidestep the awkwardness of the Pulitzer's recent very public "pass" on a 2011 prize for fiction.
Pasquier's description of the process rang a bell. I realized that the NYPL staff members on the Bernstein Prize in Journalism committe at the Library for the past 25 years uses a similar winnowing process to determine finalists from which a panel of eminent journalists, this year chaired by James Hoge, selects its winner. The list of past Bernstein winners is another terrific source of "must reads" for book lovers seeking insights into current global issues.
Presenting the award for fiction was Meg Wolitzer, a jury member whose evocative remarks about Teju Coles' winning novel made me want to read not just Open City, but her novels too. By atmospherically describing the meditations of Open City's protagonist, Julius, a psychiatrist who meanders throughout New York City neighborhoods to unwind from his grueling hospital stints, Wolitzer mesmerized the audience. Then Cole read an excerpt from his book with a disturbing image that startles narrator Julius during a Morningside Heights amble. We listeners were disturbed and startled, too, even though Coles' conversational style is easy on the ear.
Wolitzer's alluring introduction, punctuated by a shout-out from an audience member who said he'd finished Open City in one long engrossed sitting, moved Teju Cole to profess to being as pleased by the fact that people are reading his book as he is by the award itself. (In fact, this recognition is one of many nods he's received including being named a NYPL Young Lions finalist.) What pleased me was learning from Teju Cole during the book signing that he used SIBL as a quiet and inspirational novel-writing venue during breaks from his art research at the Morgan Library, our neighbor across the street. (See also: Robert Armitage's midwinter review of Open City.)
Jurist Jules Cohn extended the perfect tribute to the next award winner with his pointed observation that Carla Peterson, an accomplished literary critic, had nabbed the 2011-12 NYC Book Awards prize for history. In her acceptance remarks Peterson noted how much this recognition — and readership — meant to her given that her training and scholarship in another academic discipline.
Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth Century New York City may have grown out of Dr. Peterson's yen to trace her family's roots, piqued by scraps of memorabilia like ticket stubs. But the resulting Gotham narrative has a far broader sweep, documenting the history of a Black cultural elite with vibrant institutions — newspapers, churches, and literary societies — thriving in surprisingly heterogenous and integrated NYC neighborhoods. Peterson's educated professionals — physicians, attorneys, teachers — venerated the art of writing and cultivated a highly developed culture of the book. Copies of Washington Irving, Dickens, and Tennyson titles were awarded as prizes for literary achievement.
I was not surprised to hear that Carla Peterson made substantial use of the comprehensive collections of The New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture including, for example, the papers of Harry A Williamson to whom she ultimately discovered she is distantly related. As an early fellow in the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, Peterson had shared drafts of her work with a cadre of other writers and researchers as she plumbed both Schomburg riches and the special collections in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. An engaging presenter, Peterson is extending the reach of her marvelous book with an interactive archive of historical material.
The segue to the Hornblower Award for a First Book was provided, aptly enough, by Jenny Lawrence, the daughter of George Marshall Hornblower whose foundation has helped the Society LIbrary to support a community of writers. With the evening's hallmark sensitivity and grace, Awards chair Pasquier in his introduction of this final winner underscored the fact that the candidates for first book prize were evaluated with the same rigor applied to all of the finalists.
The Hornblower Award for a First Book went to The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York by Suleiman Osman, an assistant professor of American Studies at George Washington University. This aspiring academic, who grew up in Park Slope, has produced an architectural, literary, and social history of neighborhoods like Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and Cobble Hill. It is also a nuanced analysis of gentrification across demographic shifts.
The jury, Dr. Osman suggests, is still out on whether the development of these neighborhoods has been a success. Depending on one's perspective, the displacement of the working-class residents who kept the Brooklyn factories and piers humming by hordes of young urban professionals is either masterful city planning or urban revitalization run amuck. Brownstone Brooklyn is seen by detractors as a social experiment that failed or by its defenders as an expression of progressive political action such as bike lane concessions won by transportation alternative activists and food co-ops maintained by consumer advocates.
As one might expect, Dr. Osman found much of his material at the New York Society Library as well as in the Brooklyn Historical Society and Municipal Archives. NYPL's special collections yielded gems like the papers of Truman Capote, the owner of a Brooklyn Heights brownstone. SIBL was the source of old city directories and government documents.
The host of this magical evening and, established in 1754, the city's oldest cultural institution, the New York Society Library provides reference collections and some events and services for free and borrowing privileges by subscription. A young 'un (at one hundred and one years old), the New York Public Library goes a step further and provides borrowing privileges for free. Every title on the list of New York City Book Award winners since 1996 is accessible somewhere at the New York Public Library. In addition to Carla Peterson, several of the winners have been Cullman Scholars and one awardee, Jean Strouse, author of Morgan, is currently the Cullman Center director. Other awardees like Mike Wallace, who won for (another) Gotham, are avid users of the Frederick Lewis Allen Room — a wonderful resource that writers should explore. Given these winners with Gotham in the title, I'll close with a link to an NYPL post about the origin of the phrase "Gotham" that was the most viewed NYPL blog for several weeks running.