Of course, the Newberry Library Award is a big deal, and anybody who receives that little replica of the statue out in front of the building is a person worthy of recognition. But it’s a lot of fun when they choose someone whose books have been available at Everybody’s Favorite Book Fair (mine, anyhow.)
Of course, I generally have to say of the recipient’s work, as the man once said of the unabridged dictionary, that “I ain’t read it, but I’ve hefted it, and I respect it.” My to-read pile includes several books by Jonathan D. Spence, who won it in 2010, and a couple by Robert Darnton, the 2011 recipient. Of course, books by William J. Cronon, who won it in 2009, can be found every year in our Chicago section, and the 2013 honorand, David McCullough, is all over the History and Biography sections.
The 2015 recipient, who will be here May 11 for her statuette and dinner, can be found, however, in History, Books and Authors, and Biography, with occasional sightings in Classics and Archaeology. It’s another one of those sorting issues: should a life of Cleopatra go with other books on Ancient Egypt in Archaeology? Or should that biography sit in Classics, near the autobiography of her chief squeeze, Julius Caesar?
Anyhow, her Pulitzer-winning biography of Vera Nabokov goes into Books and Authors, with the Pulitzer runner-up biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. (Lolita and The Little Prince in one category, and by the same author: the things you see at Book fairs!) The book on Benjamin Franklin and his work in France on behalf of the new United States of America, is in History.
Stacy Schiff is the honorand’s name, and if you’ve never been to one of these Award Dinners, they involve a brief talk about the award and its recipients, remarks by the recipient on libraries, books, and working with them mean, a round of chatting and sampling hors d’oeuvres and beverage, and then a very nice dinner. Photographers wand through the crowd, apparently at random but really primed on whose picture must be taken before the evening ends, and who must pose with whom. The remarks by the recipient are unpredictable: one honorand gave such an amazingly perfect talk on the wonders of libraries that the audience was stunned, while others have grossly misunderstood the words “time limit”. (This is the hazard of awarding the thing to so many people used to lecturing in a classroom.) Videos of this year’s honorand have been surreptitiously viewed by the organizers of the event. A sigh of relief rose from their mouths: Stacy Schiff can tell a story that requires neither footnotes nor heavy doses of caffeine.
I hope you bought some of her books last July, even if you didn’t know she would be our honorand this May, and I hope you have given some thought to attending the Award Dinner. Details are available elsewhere on this website. Tickets aren’t sold at Book Fair prices—they start at $500. But it’s a chance to come and chat with someone who wrote a bunch of books you’ll see on coffee tables in the best society and, of course, at the Book Fairs attended by the best society.