National Book Awards Winner Introductions

Jonathan Kirsch, 2003 Nonfiction Panel Chair

Walter Mosley (Master of Ceremonies):

The first award this evening is for nonfiction. The finalists are: Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, Doubleday/Random House; George Howe Colt, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Home, Scribner/Simon & Schuster; John D'Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, Free Press/Simon & Schuster; Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Free Press/Simon & Schuster; and Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Crown Publishing/Random House.

It's my pleasure to introduce the Chairman of the nonfiction jury, Jonathan Kirsch. He is the author of ten books including the forthcoming God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, to be published by Viking in 2004. He is also a columnist for the L.A. Times Book Review and an attorney specializing in publishing law. Mr. Kirsch.

Jonathan Kirsch:

Thank you and good evening. I am deeply honored to appear before you tonight as the representative of the nonfiction judging panel for the 54th National Book Awards including the four distinguished writers and discerning readers who served with me on the panel. They are: Catherine Clinton, a writer, historian and biographer who is affiliated with the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University; Wendy Gimbel, author of Havana Dreams and a trustee of PEN, The Kenyon Review and Parnassus, who is researching and writing a book about sugar and the Caribbean in the 18th century; Lawrence Jackson, biographer of Ralph Ellison, who teaches English and African-American studies at Emory University; and Terry Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, whose latest book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, is just out in paperback from Perennial.

Over the last seven months, the five of us were afforded the opportunity and the duty to read and weigh the merits of the 436 nonfiction titles that were submitted for consideration for the National Book Award. I must say that I took great pleasure in the conversations, both in person and by conference calls graciously coordinated by National Book Foundation Senior Program Officer Meredith Andrews by which we judged the entries.

From the beginning, we were mindful of the long tradition and high standards that are attached to the National Book Awards and as pleasurable as the process of judging turned to be, we took our jobs seriously. At the same time, we were bedeviled by the task of picking a short list of five books and then a single winner from a small mountain of books that included works of history, biography, memoir, criticism, politics, religion, science, travel and much else besides.

We are sworn to silence on all but the final result of our proceedings but I think that I am permitted to share at least one aspect of our approach to judging. Early on, Wendy Gimbel observed that we should not consider any book for the short list that did not move us to say after closing the book, "zowie." Later, Larry Jackson expressed a preference for the term "high cotton" as a sign of praise.

This did we begin to call our list of books in active contention the "zowie high cotton list." A few hours ago we put the "zowie high cotton list" on the table at Wendy Gimbel's beautiful home for one last conversation about the five books we had come to know so well and admire so much. I am pleased to announce that the winner of the 2003 National Book Award for nonfiction is Carlos Eire for Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, published by the Free Press.