Finding Religion at the National Book Awards

Florin Gorgan/flickr
Florin Gorgan/flickr

It felt kind of like the Oscars, well, like the Oscars for book nerds. An evening with awards in different categories, a host who made witty remarks, and palpable excitement in the air. Two nights ago, I sat in an auditorium at the New School in Manhattan, for the privilege of listening as the twenty finalists for the National Book Award read from their work.

I had only read two of the books going in to the evening, and I only heard five minutes from each of the books nominated for the award. But still—what struck me about the selections as a whole was their religious nature. By religious, I don’t mean Christian (with the notable exception of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila). But I do mean works concerned with the nature of reality and of human identity. Books asking the “big questions” of purpose and meaning, of the self versus society, of morality and beauty and the possibility for grace.

John Lahr, for instance, reading from his biography of Tennessee Williams, not only talked about the social shift from a society focused on the common good to a society focused on the self as we moved out of World War Two, but emphasized Williams’ use of the word grace throughout The Glass Menagerie. Where is grace in this changing world? What is more important—the individual or the society? Similarly, the title of Edward O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence might say it all. Even though Wilson posits no faith in the divine, nevertheless the book is laden with questions about sin and salvation, virtue and vice.

Many of the books told stories as a way to help readers understand and have compassion—Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant about aging parents, Citizen: An American Lyric by poet Claudia Rankine addressing race and family, tales of life in China, Pakistan, the American south in the 1960’s, of two teenagers—one French, one German—who meet across enemy lines during World War Two. Stories of human connection and how to make meaning, to hold on to hope, in a broken world.

And then there was fiction nominee Emily St. John Mandel, whose novel Station Eleven takes place as a Shakespearian theater troupe travels around in a post-apocalyptic America. Here again, Mandel’s interest turns to hope and beauty amidst the rubble rather than to violence and despair.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Amy Julia Becker