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Reflecting on 75 Years

To reflect upon the rich 75-year history of the National Book Awards, the National Book Foundation collaborated with The Washington Post on the essay series “75 Years: US Literature and the National Book Awards”—an opportunity for National Book Award–honored authors to capture and examine, collectively, more than seven decades of US literary history through the lens of the Awards.

Each writer takes on a decade of Awards’ history, considering the books that were recognized, as well as notable works that may have been overlooked. Through their reflections on the National Book Awards archive, these writers explore the preoccupations of authors, readers, and the publishing industry through time, while simultaneously interrogating the power and subjectivity of judges and of awards. Above all, their words underscore the lasting importance of books to our culture, from the 1950s to present day.

How the first National Book Awards reflected 1950s America


It’s tempting to think that literary awards go to the “best” books of a given year, and most tempting for the winners. As Saul Bellow said while accepting a National Book Award for “The Adventures of Augie March,” in 1954, “When you get a prize you feel very virtuous.” Bellow’s name still carries weight among readers, but many prize winners have been forgotten; conversely, many older books still read today never won awards in their time. Prizes sometimes predict a future member of the literary hall of fame; sometimes they’re simply given to the books that a majority of judges can agree on. Juries are not immune to the passions and prejudices of their times, so it’s no surprise that they can be both prophetic and fallible.

Read the full essay at The Washington Post’s Book World.

These classic ’60s books shout from the shelves to be read again


“Art hurts. Art urges voyages
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.”

This is poet Gwendolyn Brooks at her best, stinging sentiment followed by a swig of damning, ordinary detail from the fridge. We’ve worked hard for a drink that shuts out the world. The lines are taken from her collection In the Mecca, a National Book Award Finalist in 1969. An adjacent thought from another poet, Elizabeth Bishop, in Questions of Travel (1966 Finalist): “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”

Read the full essay at The Washington Post’s Book World.

Stay tuned for the next essay on the 1970s, to be published in July.