Patti Smith, the legendary rocker with a celebrity star power not often seen at literary events, received a National Book Award on Wednesday night for "Just Kids," a memoir of her close relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
"I've loved books all my life," a teary-eyed Smith said as she took the stage at the gala ceremony in New York. As a clerk at Scribner's Bookstore, she said, she shelved the National Book Award winners. "I used to wonder what it would feel like" — and here the musician, whose many awards include a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had to stop to regain her composure. "Thank you for letting me find out."
Although Smith was a crowd favorite in the nonfiction category, her win was something of a surprise, as was the fiction award, which went to Jaimy Gordon's "Lord of Misrule," published by independent press McPherson & Co.
Other books in the fiction category were Peter Carey's "Parrot and Olivier in America," Nicole Krauss' "Great House," Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That," and "I Hotel" by Karen Tei Yamashita, a professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz. Notably absent was Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," the most talked-about novel of the year.
The nonfiction category finalists included John W. Dower's "Cultures of War" and Justin Spring's "Secret Historian." This year's nominees included two Los Angeles Times staffers — Barbara Demick for "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" and Megan K. Stack for "Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War." Both books began as work for The Times. When the nominations were announced in October, the National Book Foundation, which administers the awards, said work from two reporters at a single news organization had not been so recognized in the last decade.
Author Tom Wolfe, known for his considerable achievements in fiction and nonfiction, was presented with the Distinguished Contributions to American Letters award by Tina Brown, editor of the Daily Beast and soon-to-be editor of Newsweek.
The poetry award went to Terrance Hayes for "Lighthead," published by Penguin Books. The finalists were Kathleen Graber's "The Eternal City," James Richardson's "By the Numbers," C.D. Wright's "One With Others" and "Ignatz" by Monica Youn.
The award for young people's literature went to Kathryn Erskine for "Mockingbird," published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group. The finalists were Paolo Bacigalupi for "Ship Breaker," Laura McNeal for "Dark Water," Walter Dean Myers for "Lockdown" and Rita Williams-Garcia for "One Crazy Summer."
Sesame Street's Elmo (with puppeteer Kevin Clash on hand in a tux) helped present the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community to Joan Ganz Cooney, a founder of the Children's Television Workshop.
In accepting the award, and with e-books clearly on her mind, Smith echoed a call made by other winners in recent years. "There is nothing more beautiful in our material world than the book," she said. "Please never abandon the book."