And the winner is? With the 2nd Annual ALA Carnegie Awards coming up, Nancy is deep in “book award” mode

Q: So, it’s that time of year—awards season. That is, book awards, of course—the Oscars notwithstanding, late last month we had the NBCC winners and, of course, in June we will have the ALA’s second annual book awards, the Carnegie Medals. So, first things first, do you have any impressions to share about the books that have won awards already, and are there any missing titles that you would have thrown into the mix? And, finally, you’ve talked a bit about this in past columns, but do book awards matter in the library—do you see patron demand spike for winning titles, and do you have any ideas on how libraries can use awards to promote these great books?

A: I must confess, I have a great, innate skepticism about book awards, despite my many experiences of being on the juries for a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Story Prize. Even after doing so many times, I still don’t quite get how any group of judges of any book award in any year can compare books and come up with the one that is “best.”

I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating: what does “best” mean, anyway, when it comes to a book? Books up for a major literary award aren’t measured against a checklist of criteria to determine their quality. There isn’t such a checklist available, nor should there be. But without any objective criteria, how do you compare, say, Louise Erdrich’s richly detailed and intense The Round House with Ian McEwan’s tricky and entirely satisfying Sweet Tooth? They’re both members of the same genus—let’s call it Fictione Contemporaneum, just to be cute—but are certainly not of the same species. Doesn’t it, when the discussion’s done and the voting is about to begin, simply come down to which one the judges liked better? Or, more likely, which judge was more persuasive—or overpowering?

Off and on for many years, I was a member of the Notable Books Council of the Reference and User Services Association, a section of the American Library Association. Each year, 12 librarians from around the country are tasked with picking the best 25 books of the year, covering fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. My favorite awards story comes from a committee meeting in 1994, when I voted against one of the titles under consideration. In high dudgeon, one of my fellow committee members loudly announced that I would burn in hell forever for my actions! It remains to be seen whether she was correct in her prediction, but it does go to show that emotions run high and deep when you’re dealing with awards.

But I’m actually the kind of reader for whom literary awards are intended: what I demand in any book I’m reading is writing that takes my breath away and characters who walk off the page and into my life. A fast-moving plot is unnecessary, unless I’m in a certain mood. I don’t demand, or even want, to have everything neatly wrapped up by the last page. I like ambiguous endings and moral dilemmas. I’m up for experimental or unusual writing styles. I like novels written in the second-person plural. And I love footnotes in fiction. I’m always looking for those under-the-radar titles that make my reading life worthwhile. So I’m thrilled with this year’s NBA and NBCC fiction winners: Louise Erdrich’s The Round House and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, respectively. These two were certainly on my list of the best fiction of 2012.

But this year, like every year, I’m of course disappointed that many of my favorites not only didn’t win, but weren’t even shortlisted for the NBCC award or the NBA. I still have hope for the Pulitzers, not to mention the Carnegies.

Among the fiction titles I’d add to any list are Richard Ford’s Canada, Tania James’s Aerogrammes and Other Stories, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn, Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins.

As for nonfiction, I’d add the following: Douglas Smith’s Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy; Tim Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis; Diana Preston’s The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838–1842; Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan; David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; and Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons.

Q: As you mentioned, the process has begun for the second annual American Library Association’s national book award, the Carnegies, correct? Can you tell us a bit about this year’s crop, and any updates on the work the committee is doing? Any changes in the way the committee is working from its first year?

A: You are correct, and once again I have the honor of chairing the committee selecting the 2013 winners of the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. The committee is hard at work, and this year’s judges include three representatives from Booklist magazine, ace reviewers all (Donna Seaman, Brad Hooper, and Rebecca Vnuk), as well as three terrific librarians and great readers (Danise Hoover, Ike Pulver, and Nonny Schlotzhauer). E-mails are flying fast and furiously among the committee as we work toward narrowing down our longlist to our three finalists in fiction and nonfiction.

We’ll have a marathon conference call toward the end of March, and then the winner will be announced on June 30 in Chicago, during the annual ALA conference. As you can see from the list, it’s a lonnnggg longlist—50 titles, to be exact. Coming up with a shortlist is exciting, but also difficult and frustrating. It’s exciting because you’re reading some first-rate books. It’s difficult because you’re forced to select from among those titles, and it’s frustrating because it frequently happens that another committee member pans a book you love.

I’ve always felt that it’s best all around if one doesn’t become overly attached to any particular title, but that’s much easier to say than to do. I am, at the moment, very attached to many of the titles on the longlist.

Stay tuned—and, while you’re at it, we’d love to have your feedback on the longlist!

The Longlist

These books are under consideration for the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medals


Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue (Harper)
Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead)
Ivan Doig, The Bartender’s Tale (Riverhead)
Emma Donoghue, Astray (Little, Brown)
Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues (Picador)
Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King (McSweeney’s)
Louise Erdrich, The Round House (Harper)
Richard Ford, Canada (Harper/Ecco)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Harper/Ecco)
Lauren Groff, Arcadia (Hyperion/Voice)
Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (Knopf)
John Irving, In One Person (Simon & Schuster)
Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House)
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Random House)
Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (Harper)
Vincent Lam, The Headmaster’s Wager (Random/Hogarth)
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Holt)
Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth (Doubleday/Talese)
Toni Morrison, Home (Knopf)
Alice Munro, Dear Life (Knopf)
Ron Rash, The Cove (Harper/Ecco)
Paul Theroux, The Lower River (Houghton)
Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (Scribner)
Jonathan Tropper, One Last Thing Before I Go (Dutton)
Anne Tyler, The Beginner’s Goodbye (Knopf)
Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (Harper)
Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn (Riverhead)


Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House)
Gordon Bowker, James Joyce: A New Biography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Crown)
Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Knopf)
Tanner Colby, Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America (Viking)
George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon)
Timothy Egan, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (Houghton Mifflin Har-court)
Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story (Norton/Liveright)
Paul Ingrassia, Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars (Simon & Schuster)
Kristen Iversen, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (Crown)
Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper (Walker)
Jonathan Kozol, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years among the Poorest Children in America (Crown)
Jill Lepore, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (Knopf)
David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Story (Simon & Schuster)
Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House)
Paul Thomas Murphy, Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy (Pegasus)
David Nasaw, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (Penguin)
David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (Norton)
Callum Roberts, Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea (Viking)
Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Random House)
Jeffrey Toobin, The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court (Doubleday)
Edward O.Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (Norton/Liveright)
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove/Atlantic)

Nancy Pearl, a veteran Seattle librarian, is a regular commentator about books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.