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The book world turned out last night for its annual celebration of literature, the National Book Awards. The setting for this year's ceremony was opulent and just steps away from the New York Stock Exchange, which used to seem opulent. The irony was not lost on this crowd, as NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: 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 Cipriani, a gilded hall on Wall Street in the heart of the financial district.

Mr. SALVATORE SCIBONA (Author, "The End"): I feel like a country mouse.

NEARY: First-time novelist Salvatore Scibona, nominated for an award in fiction, was awestruck by both the honor and the setting.

Mr. SCIBONA: The ceiling is about maybe 60 feet to 70 feet up. And there's an enormous concave half-bowl that looks like it's gilded. And there's a chandelier that's as big as a Chevy Suburban hanging from it. And there are about five or six hundred people in this room. And they all look like a million bucks.

NEARY: But even in this well-dressed crowd, there were some murmurs of anxiety about the economy. And in his opening remarks, host Eric Bogosian duly noted the irony inherent in partying in the shadow of the stock exchange.

Mr. ERIC BOGOSIAN (Writer; Actor; Host, National Book Awards): It's so appropriate to be here tonight on Wall Street. Of course this was a bank once. And they made these banks like this because banks never fail.

NEARY: But if the economy was weighing on people's minds, the recent election of Barack Obama was lifting their spirits. Maxine Hong Kingston, author of "The Woman Warrior," was given the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She said she had hoped to use her renewed fame to write an essay about the president-elect. The essay was rejected by newspapers. But like a lot of writers these days, she found a way to get around that.

Ms. MAXINE HONG KINGSTON (Author, "The Woman Warrior"): So I went online. All I had to do was type, then click a button marked "Publish." Yes, there is such a button. Voila! I was published.

NEARY: Many of this year's nominated books were inspired by dark subjects - suicide, Hurricane Katrina, casualties of war 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 the recent presidential election.

Ms. ANNETTE GORDON-REED (Author, "The Hemingses of Monticello"): It's sort of wonderful to have the book come out at this particular time. People ask me if I planned it that way. No, I did not. But all of Americans, we're on a great journey now, so I look forward to the years to come. And I'm just overwhelmed. Thank you very much.

NEARY: The winner of the poetry award was Mark Doty for his collection "Fire to Fire." And for young adult literature, Judy Blundell won for "What I saw and How I Lied." Peter Matthiessen won the fiction award for "Shadow Country." Matthiessen, a veteran of the National Book Awards, as both a winner and a finalist, had some words of wisdom for his fellow nominees. He reminded them that he failed to win the fiction award in 1966 for his novel "At Play in the Fields of the Lord."

Mr. PETER MATTHIESSEN (Author, "Shadow Country"): I was encouraged by somebody who said, oh, well, you'll be back. Well, I want to tell those guys, I'm back. And they're going to be back too. They're wonderful writers. They're going to be back. I just hope it doesn't take them 43 years like me. Thank you very much.

NEARY: And on that note of optimism about the future, the ceremony came to a close. Partygoers poured out into the street, more than a few passing under the steady gaze of George Washington on his perch across the street from the New York Stock Exchange. Lynn Neary, NPR News, New York.

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