The Rose Room and a National Book Awards Memory

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

This past weekend we took refuge, for a spell, inside the New York Public Library, a place I always try to visit whenever I come to New York.

As we stood beneath this Rose Room sky, I recalled, as I always do, my first trip to that building, which happened in the company of my first editor, Alane Salierno Mason. Alane bought three of my books, not just the first, and she brought to each one a rigorous, unyielding eye. Alane cares very much about the state of books, not just in this country, but in the world.

I wrote something about that Rose Room in 1998, in the wake of my experience at the National Book Awards and published it then. Today, in between a spate of client projects, I was feeling melancholy and looked at that old essay again:

Hours before the 49th National Book Awards ceremony got under way, Alane Salierno Mason, my literary editor, remembered a room I had to see; we went. A lion, an edifice, a swoop of stairs, and then there it was, big as a city block, and skied with permanent weather. There were six-hundred pound tables and a constellation of polished lamps, people enough for a subway station, though this was the New York Public Library, the newly splendoured Rose Reading Room. I thought I heard a holy hush. I felt drawn out, thrown out of kilter by the hundreds hunkered down with books.

A while later, John Updike took the stage at the Marriott Marquis to accept the 1998 award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. His voice had a quiet, avuncular appeal, and in that darkened room he stepped his audience back into the library of his youth, the glamour of a typeface, the beauty of a book “in proportion to the human hand.” There were stacks of books on every table, images of books hung like pendants on the walls. There were authors in the room, editors, publishers, agents, reviewers, there were readers, and we understood why we had come.

The media, the next day and for days to come, would write of dark horses, battlefields, upset victories, dueling styles. They would tally winners and losers as if bookmaking were a gamble or a sport. They would declaim the event because their heroes had not been crowned, because somehow they had not deduced the final outcome. But what too many lost in their rush for the headline was the reality of what that evening was: a celebration of books. A communion of stories. A tribute to the humanity of words.

What I’ll remember is not so much who won, but what was said. What I’ll remember is how Gerald Stern, upon accepting the poetry honor, venerated his fellow poets: individually, distinctively, with elemental and essential grace. I’ll remember how Louis Sachar, winning for Young People’s Literature, did the same, and how Alice McDermott, one of the most exquisite, time-proven novelists in the land, hadn’t the ego to believe her name was called. I’ll remember the dignity of that old-fashioned tribe, the integrity of the jurors, the company I was keeping—my husband, my parents, my brother, the W.W. Norton team, my agent, Amy Rennert. I’ll remember how it felt to be sitting there amongst the others all because I’d been given the certain exceptional privilege of publishing a little book about love.

Why do we read? Why do we write? For me, the answer made itself known some 24 hours prior to the ceremony, when the twenty National Book Award nominees gathered at the New School for a reading. Twenty voices from four disciplines, each taking the stage for five minutes, each singing a story or a phrase. Linda Pastan threading us through the eye of a pantume. Henry Mayer reviving the abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. Anita Lobel bringing on a Holocaust chill. Jack Gantos becoming a way-too-active child. Harold Bloom impassioned us with Shakespeare and Allegra Goodman took us inside a painting and B.H. Fairchild conjured the dust of a baseball field, while Yaffa Eliach bustled a shtetl back to life and Edward Ball planted dead slaves into the ground, at night. I know it doesn’t make for modern-day headlines, but we do not write to win or lose. We write to roar our secrets out. We write because language is the music we dance to. We write because we’ve been alive, or because we have survived, or because we’re determined to survive, tomorrow, the next day. We write because solitary crowds have gathered and hushed beneath a brilliant, plaster sky on a city street at a mid-day hour, and because they are seeking, they are dreaming, they are needing, they are deserving of something rare, good, ever-true from books.


Woman in a Window said...

Oh Beth, I came and I buzzed alive and electric through this. Alive. Electric. And I almost weep. What is that?

"We write to roar our secrets out. We write because language is the music we dance to. We write because we’ve been alive, or because we have survived, or because we’re determined to survive, tomorrow, the next day." And this is why I weep.

Beautiful, insightful you.

Beth F said...

I'll just say a lame "wow."

Kelly H-Y said...

So beautiful ... I want to visit that room! Your writing was just as stunningly gorgeous then as it is now.

septembermom said...

"We write because language is the music we dance to." - amazing Beth.

Your words spoke to me so clearly in this post. You speak for the writer's soul. Thank you for honoring the writing craft with your creativity and respect.

Anonymous said...

We write to roar our secrets out.
Exquisite. I am hushed by the beauty of your words.

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