Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids won the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction last night at the Cirpirani Ballroom on Wall Street. It was, to say the least, a surprising moment.
Typically at the National Book Awards, the books most likely to sell are the ones most likely to take home the prizes. But Smith doesn’t fit in at all with the typical mold of a National Book Award winner. Plenty of insiders had written off Smith’s book as a Bob Dylan’s Chronicles-esque recollection of her time in New York, whose strength is its stories and not its writing. It made the surprise of hearing Smith’s name called all the better.
Smith was shocked. She shuffled up to the stage from her table and started to speak. “I’ve loved books all of my life,” she started out, noting that when she used to stock books in the city, she always paid attention to the National Book Award-winners, and dreamed about taking home an award. “I used to wonder what it would feel like,” Smith teared up. It was unexpected and emotional. “Thank you for letting me find out,” she finished, before adding one last aside that got an ovation from the crowd:
“Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.”
We caught Smith surrounded by friends, far from the bright lights of the photo wall. She was uncharacteristically smiling, unabashedly. She recalled her earliest days slaving away with books in New York: “I worked at Scriber’s Book Store most of the time, from ’67 to ’72. But I also worked at Argosy, Rand Taylors, and the Strand Basement.” She was holding her own book and grinning. We asked her what went into Just Kids.
Smith looked down at it, petted it, and half-mumbled to us: “I chose the paper, the font, everything.” She looked up. “I looked at the fonts I liked. It was a very French font.”
She shrugged and turned around at the tuxedoed onlookers patting her on the shoulder, maybe a little uncomfortably. “I’m just, I….Thank you.” She smiled again, and Patti Smith, National Book Award-winning author, slinked off further into the ballroom.