For years, the National Book Awards have been held in the cavernous ballroom of a nondescript hotel in midtown Manhattan. But this year, the National Book Foundation, which hosts the event, decided it wanted a more elegant venue. So it moved the ceremony to the Cipriani, a gilded hall on Wall Street in the heart of the financial district.
First-time novelist Salvatore Scibona, nominated for an award in fiction, was awestruck by both the honor and the setting.
"I feel like a country mouse," he said. "There are about 500 or 600 people in this room, and they all look like a million bucks."
But even in this well-dressed crowd, there were some murmurs of anxiety about the economy and the future. In his opening remarks, host Eric Bogosian noted the irony inherent in partying in the shadow of the stock exchange.
Many of this year's nominated books were inspired by dark subjects: suicide, Hurricane Katrina, casualties of wars past and present, slavery and its legacy. Annette Gordon-Reed won the nonfiction award for The Hemingses of Monticello, the story of Thomas Jefferson's hidden slave family. In accepting her award, Reed reflected on Obama's election.
"It's sort of wonderful to have the book come out at this particular time," she said. "All Americans ... are on a great journey now. I look forward to the years to come."
The winner of the poetry award was Mark Doty for his collection Fire to Fire. For young adult literature, Judy Blundell won for What I Saw and How I Lied.
Peter Matthiessen, a veteran of the National Book Awards as both a winner and a finalist, won the fiction award for Shadow Country.
Matthiessen, 81, had some words of wisdom for his fellow nominees. He reminded them that when he didn't win the award in 1966 for his novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord, someone told him, "Oh well, you'll be back."
"I was encouraged," Matthiessen said. "I want to tell all those guys ... they'll be back. They're wonderful writers. They're going to be back. I just hope it doesn't take them 43 years like me."