National Book Award Classics – Essays Celebrating Our Literary Heritage

From the Preface. December, 2003

It is bittersweet to write this preface during the waning days and hours of my tenure as Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. But there is likewise encouraging symbolism, because I conclude my decade and a half of service with a beginning that signifies even more to me than it did when I took the job – a “beginning” on broadening the concept of tradition.

…As I consider these twelve brief essays, I realize how they serve as a way into American writing – not the only way, of course, but one possible way. Those of you reading this piece who, like myself, came up through the ranks of scholarship or academia (or perhaps were idealistic English majors) have heard more than enough rhetoric about “the canon.”

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The problem with “the canon” is exclusivity, which is why I advise you to start with our National Book Award Winners — but continue on after them. The Awards, at least as they were bestowed on my watch, were not saying “These are the only books of quality in a given year.” Rather, they were saying, “These books were singled out by the collective sensibilities of our distinguished judges in this particular year, and they point to hundreds of contiguous others.”

Thus traditions are constructed, book by book, defined by each individual reader, within the privacy of her or his imagination.

N. B.

[Essays on William Carlos Williams, William Faulkner, Rachel L. Carson, Ralph Ellison, Bruce Catton, Wallace Stevens, Flannery O’Connor, Perry Miller, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Robert Lowell, William L. Shirer. With special thanks to John Ingram, J. Kirby Best, and Rob Earp of Ingram Book Group and Lightning Source.]

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