That grand, battered and essential institution

<p>This is a book publishing story, but it begins in a bank.</p>
<p>In 1908, the National City Bank of New York &ndash; today&rsquo;s Citibank - moved into 55 Wall Street. It renovated what had originally been the US Custom House into a fabulously sumptuous, Corinthian-columned, coffered-ceilinged temple to capitalism.</p>
<p>In 1933, the freewheeling, expansionist practices instituted by National City - which dealt in bonds, stocks, trusts as well as ordinary local branches - were blamed as one factor behind the stock market crash. Its president was forced to flee his golden coop.</p>
<p>In 2008, with shades of the 1930s haunting the communal mind, 50,000 Citibank redundancies joining the multitude of others being announced almost daily (including those in the book business), and the New York Stock Exchange literally just down the street, the banking-hall-turned-ballroom served as the new site for this year&rsquo;s National Book Awards.</p>
<p>Maxine Hong Kingston, honored with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, spoke at one point of ghosts. Ghosts and ironies there were aplenty on what can only be described as a surreal Wednesday night.</p>
<p>It was the second surreal gathering in one week. On Monday, a &ldquo;literary celebration&rdquo; was convened at the equally sumptuous Hotel Pierre by Direct Brands, the latest incarnation of America&rsquo;s best known book clubs (under Bertelsmann the clubs were called BookSpan, and in pre-merged days, the evening was sponsored by the Literary Guild). Traditionally it is the most important publishing party of the fall season. It was a fine evening, with tout le monde in attendance, but amidst the revelry there was a self-conscious undercurrent, as grateful guest after grateful guest wondered aloud, given the state of book clubs in an Amazonized world and the general state of the economy, how such an expensive event could take place. Many wondered whether they would be gathering next fall at the Pierre.</p>
<p>At the NBAs, more than one speaker pointed out that it&rsquo;s a good thing Obama has been elected. It&rsquo;s no exaggeration to say that at this moment, the country&rsquo;s hopes are pinned on a single man.</p>
<p>Barney Rosset, the legendary Grove Press publisher and self-described &ldquo;son of Chicago&rdquo; whose championing of Henry Miller&rsquo;s <i>The Tropic of Cancer</i>, D.H. Lawrence&rsquo;s <i>Lady Chatterley&rsquo;s Lover</i>, not to mention Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, Burroughs, Stoppard et al ensured his place in literary history and got him the evening&rsquo;s Literarian award, said it was &ldquo;the first time in recent memory&rdquo; that he was not thinking of renouncing his US passport.</p>
<p>Rosset recalled &ldquo;the time of great hope when JFK was president,&rdquo; which coincided with the Miller anti-censorship victory, then looked to the present, saying it was &ldquo;an additional privilege to receive this award when the US has made this magnificently impossible turn&hellip;Perhaps publishing, that grand, battered and essential institution, will go through a similar renewal. I hope so. I think so.&rdquo;</p>
<p>But the &ldquo;battering&rdquo; publishing is taking was certainly evident. When Sessalee Hensley, the fiction buyer for Barnes &amp; Noble, was asked to name a couple of books she thought would be big for the holiday season, she referred this reporter to the gloomy pronouncement B&amp;N chairman Len Riggio had made a few weeks earlier.</p>
<p>CEO George Jones&rsquo;s presence was noted at the Borders&rsquo; table. Publishers have always looked upon Borders as their backlist&rsquo;s friend, but in cocktail conversation they didn&rsquo;t fail to link the downturn in many backlist sales to Borders&rsquo; cash situation and need to cut orders. There is nothing to make the worry about Borders&rsquo; future diminish.</p>
<p>The NBAs took place at the former bank (now the Cipriani Ballroom) instead of the usual venue, the barn-like Marriott Marquis in Times Square, because agent Lynn Nesbit insisted that she would not join the NBA board if the awards were held at the d&eacute;class&eacute; Marriott, or so the story went. She wanted to create a glamorous, elegant cultural event that was noticed beyond the book industry. <i>The New Yorker</i>, a former table-buying patron of the $1000-a-plate NBAs, had bowed out; Janklow-Nesbit was willing to step into the breach, and so Wall Street it was.</p>
<p>Although some favored <i>The Dark Side</i> (Doubleday), Jane Mayer&rsquo;s &ldquo;brilliant, meticulous&rdquo; analysis of Bush, Cheney and Co., the nonfiction prize went to Annette Gordon-Reed&rsquo;s &ldquo;mesmerizing&rdquo; multi-generational portrayal of Thomas Jefferson&rsquo;s other family, <i>The Hemingses of Monticello</i> (Norton). The serendipity of this award coming to this book in this particular month was not lost on anybody, and not because the author won it on the day she turned fifty. Gordon-Reed referred to &ldquo;the journey that black people in this country are on,&rdquo; and the fact that &ldquo;all Americans are on a great journey now.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Mark Doty, a 1993 finalist and the poetry winner for <i>Fire to Fire</i> (HarperCollins), personalized the theme of change a little differently, when he mentioned that, after a ceremony in the state of Massachusetts, he could now, instead of thanking his partner, thank his husband.</p>
<p>Judy Blundell won the award for young people&rsquo;s literature for <i>What I Saw and How I Lied</i> (Scholastic). Blundell, &ldquo;a writer for hire&rdquo; who has written or ghosted &ldquo;well over a hundred books&rdquo; &ndash; romance, adventure, SF, celebrity &ndash; said that this is the first one she put her name on. She thanked her editor for giving her back her voice.</p>
<p>The big surprise of the evening was the fiction winner, Peter Matthiessen&rsquo;s <i>Shadow Country</i> (Modern Library), a &ldquo;re-mastering&rdquo; and &ldquo;re-imagining&rdquo; of his own Watson trilogy. The fact that a &ldquo;re-mastered&rdquo; book had been submitted and made the shortlist had courted controversy. For his part, Matthiessen admitted, the book had been &ldquo;quite a trial. It did take thirty years.&rdquo; But he also offered encouragement for others: he had been a fiction finalist in 1966. It took more than four decades, but he&rsquo;d come back.</p>
<p>On that note the ceremony ended. Some headed for a first-ever &ldquo;after the awards&rdquo; party. Most of the glamorous crowd, however, emptied out of the glamorous hall and headed for their waiting limos (or taxis or &ndash; yes - the subway). The cold night brought some up short. After the camaraderie, the good feeling about books, the nods to our soon-to-be-president, winter was in the air. And yes, reality hit: we were on Wall Street.</p>