Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Book prizes these days are a dime a dozen. Most of us who follow such matters could likely name a handful without blinking an eye: the National Book Award, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize are ones that come immediately to mind. This list doesn’t include those prizes that award money for best first book of fiction or best first book of poetry or those prizes that offer publication for a manuscript that meets certain criteria. Stories surrounding the making of such lists are legendary, of course. Fist fights between judges, judges refusing to judge their spouse’s book, resignations over differences of opinion, and public airing of dirty laundry are just a few of the well-publicized incidents that have surrounded these prizes.
Of course, in the end, the prizes mean very little, except to the author (and perhaps to the publisher). Awards don’t sell books, though they make for nice tag lines in ads (which don’t sell books, either). How many people keep either the long list or the short list at hand when they go to a bookstore in search of a good read? How many can name last year’s Pulitzer winner or Nobel winner? How many can name this year’s winners (much less the winners of some of the smaller prizes)? Why should we care much about book prizes when people’s desire to read books comes somewhere down at the bottom of their own lists, somewhere below doing taxes? Besides, if printed books are giving way to Kindles, where is the pleasure in taking a list to a store to look for one of these prize books? You can’t find most of these books at Barnes & Noble or Borders anyway since they carry only the latest book—if you’re lucky—by any author. Only good independent bookstores—of which there are far too few these days, and for which we rightly mourn—can ever help us to find these prize winners, or nominees. Honestly, lists of nominees and finalists for any book prizes make for great cocktail party chatter, but that’s about all.
A new book will at least change that judgment a wee bit. The New Press has recently issued a nice anthology of lectures from Nobel laureates in literature from 1986 to 2006. The winners in these years represent some of world literature’s greatest writers and some of its richest writings.
Since the first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in 1901, controversy has surrounded not only the prize itself and the selection process but also the laureates themselves and their Nobel lectures. In 1958, Soviet officials would not allow Boris Pasternak to travel to Stockholm to accept his Prize, while in 1964 Jean-Paul Sartre famously refused to accept the prize. The lectures of recent laureates have raised even more controversy, veering from the political aloofness of the writer to the demands that literature itself be political. Covering the last twenty years of lectures from literature laureates, Nobel Lectures: From the Literature Laureates, 1986-2006, gathers the remarks of writers as diverse as Orhan Pamuk (2006), J.M. Coetzee (2003), Seamus Heaney (1995), Toni Morrison (1993), Naguib Mahfouz (1988), Kenzburo Oe (1994), and Nadine Gordimer (1991). Pamuk speaks of writing as a solitary venture: “To become a writer . . . we must feel compelled to escape crowds, company, the stuff of ordinary, everyday life, and shut ourselves up in a room . . . so we can create a deep world in our writing.” Harold Pinter (2005) uses his moment in the Noble sun to issue a strident anti-war message: “We have brought torture . . . innumerable acts of random murder, misery, and degradation to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East’.” For Gao Xingjian, the writer’s task involves the search for truth: “To subvert is not the aim of literature; its value lies in discovering and revealing what is rarely known, little known, thought to be known but in fact not very well known truth of the human world . . . truth is the unassailable and most basic quality of literature.” Finally, for Joseph Brodsky, “literature is . . . the goal of our species.” While the lectures provide inspiring glimpses of the nature of literature and the aim of the writing life, the collection lacks a strong, detailed introduction that provides some rationale for the usefulness of such a collection of speeches that are readily available in many places.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at