Book Column: Books that are prized above all others

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10/25/2010 5:14 PM |

Fall is a busy time of year for list-makers and prize-givers. First there is the Nobel Prize for Literature, given this year to the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. I’ve only read one of his books, ‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,’ and that was so long ago I’ve forgotten what I thought of it.
I was at the time thoroughly under the spell of his once great friend and later enemy, Gabriel García Márquez, whose ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is one of the most amazing, important books ever written (according to many, including me). The fact that the Gulf of Mexico oil well that exploded this spring was named Macondo after a mythical locale in that book seems like an affirmation that the book’s epic magical realism was just too epic and too magical to be contained inside its covers and so has exploded in sweeping tragedy 33 years after publication.
Márquez received his Nobel Prize decades ago. He was also publicly punched in the nose by Vargas Llosa, which both men have admitted but neither has explained. It is rumored to have something to do with the second Mrs. Vargas Llosa.
Both writers are very involved in politics as well as literature and were both similarly left-wing in their youth, but where García Márquez has remained staunchly radical, Vargas Llosa has veered in a more conservative direction, running (unsuccessfully) for president of Peru as a center-right candidate in 1990. During that time he said to a New York Times reporter that “although literature is a perfectly justified vocation … I should also say that like most writers toiling, I have always had the uncomfortable feeling that you never know if what you are doing has any real impact — impact in reality, yes?” Somehow that sounds more cynical and pragmatic than magically real or really magic. Maybe that explains why his Nobel Prize came so much later than García Márquez’, why García Márquez didn’t hit him back and why I’ve never undertaken to read his oeuvre.
Vargas Llosa is the man the Swedish Academy decided to honor this year. It is good to see them honor an American (South American, in this case), because the list and photos of previous winners show them to be mainly men and mainly European. I was pleased to see that Floyd Memorial Library has a good number of his books on the shelves, unlike those by other recent winners who were much more obscure. We put what we had out on display and they’ve been going like hotcakes.
People are interested in reading books by prizewinners. We don’t yet have ‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson, which recently won the Man Booker prize, England’s premiere literary prize. We do have an earlier novel by Mr. Jacobson called ‘Kalooki Nights.’ Last year’s Man Booker went to Hilary Mantel’s excellent ‘Wolf Hall,’ a novel about Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and Henry the Eighth. The year before that it was ‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga, which the library’s book discussion club read and found fascinating.
In the United States, this year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction went to Paul Harding for ‘Tinkers,’ a debut novel set at the deathbed of a New England watch repairman remembering his life.
Next up will be the National Book Awards. The list of finalists includes a previous National Book Award winner, two previous finalists, 13 women — the largest number of women finalists in a single year in the awards’ history — and six books from small, independent presses.
The fiction list includes Australian-born Peter Carey (now a U.S. citizen living in New York City); Brooklynite Nicole Krauss; North Carolina’s Lionel Shriver, who now divides her time between Brooklyn and London; Baltimore native Jaimy Gordon; and Californian Karen Tei Yamashita. Last year’s fiction winner was Colum McCann’s ‘Let the Great World Spin,’ a tour de force that approaches from multiple viewpoints the morning a tightrope walker danced between the two towers of the World Trade Center. This year’s winner will be announced in November.
There are many more lists and prizes, too numerous to mention.
What are all these prizes and lists about? Who gets to choose what’s best? Often it seems to be an unchanging panel of academics or critics. Sometimes a committee is composed of fellow writers in a particular field or genre. Sometimes the author gets a big check along with the prize, sometimes just the publicity that might increase sales. Some prizewinners go on to fame and fortune, and some sink quietly back into obscurity. Really, all these prizes and lists are just tools to help winnow and organize the enormous output in publishing every year. Some lists can be helpful; I know a few readers who are always eager to get their hands on the Man Booker winner, and older relatives can turn to Caldecott winners to give as presents to small children.
They are useful, these prizes and lists, but the main point of reading books is to open up your mind and come to your very own conclusions. Make your own lists! Award your own prizes!
Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.