"Reading is essential to democracy," said James Wald, chairman of the Mass. Center for the Book, at the Sept. 17 Mass. Book Awards presentation held in the Great Hall of the Statehouse. Remarkably enough, the state's Constitution agrees, quite explicitly in a section entitled "The Encouragement of Literature, etc." Largely written by John Adams, the Massachusetts Constitution states (Ch.5, Sect.2): "Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties... it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature..."
The legislature and the Mass. Center for the Book carry out that Constitutional responsibility by making annual awards for best books in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Young Adult and Early Reader categories. With a three-year backlog since its last public presentation of awards, the organization publicly acknowledged winners and other honorees at a large public gathering in the Great Hall of the Statehouse.
My 2017 poetry chapbook was nominated for an award, but did not receive any further recognition. I decided to attend (with Anne; hence the photo) and clap for the winner after receiving this stirring communication from event's organizer, following a back-and-forth negotiation over whether the event had room for me or not:
Thanks for your RSVP to the MassBooks event at the State House on Tuesday, 9/17. Response to the invitation was swift and robust, and we are in the happy position of being oversubscribed for the event, and we are sorry that you were put on a waiting list. Please know that you are heartily welcomed to attend the event.
In addition to writers and their plus-one supporters, the session was attended by some 15 legislators and a few representatives of publishing houses among a gathering of some 200 aficianados of the book.
Among highlights, a special Mass. Literacy Award was presented to Beacon Press, a Boston publisher long committed to publishing works that serve the public good.
An award recipient with a national profile, author, Harvard professor, and "New Yorker" staff writer Jill Lepore spoke in praise of an early American book lover: Jane Franklin, Benjamin's better-read sister. When the first US Congress asked Ben what books it needed for its new national library, Lepore recounted, Ben replied, "Why don't you ask Jane?"
Lepore also noted that the city of Boston had failed to preserve Jane Franklin's home and suggested that the Mass Center for the Book name its awards after her.
Among other honorees who took advantage of the occasion to make a point, poet Ilan Stavans, author of 2018 winner "The Wall" noted the long history of opposition between tyranny and books. "The Chinese emperor who built 'the great wall of China' ordered all the books in China to be collected and burned," Stavan said, "because books cause people to think, and thinking might cause them to revolt."
According to the Book Awards press release, "'The Wall' is a poetic exploration...of the U.S.-Mexican wall dividing the two civilizations, of similar walls (Jerusalem, China, Berlin, Warsaw, etc.) in history, and of the act of separating people by ideology, class, race, and other subterfuges."
Other poetry awards went to "Vivas to Those Who Have Failed: Poems" by Martin Espada, a 2016 collection that invoked the vision of Walt Whitman and included "a cycle of sonnets about the Paterson Silk Strike and the immigrant laborers who envisioned an eight-hour workday."
And to Richard Hoffman, whose volume "From Noon Until Night" received the best book award for 2017. Hoffman told the gathering, "You can't make a living as a poet, but you can make a life."
Other titles went on my own ever-growing list of books I mean to read. Notably, the novels "The Unmade World" by Steve Yarbrough, a book set in a time of political and cultural upheaval in the US and Eastern Europe; and "The World of Tomorrow" by Brendan Mathews, a book about three Irish brothers having the best (or the worst) week of their lives in 1939 New York.
And too many others to mention. In fact the full list of books honored in the agency's 4-page event program contains a wealth of recommendations for anybody's reading list.
State senators and representatives took part in the awards ceremony by presenting honors to the authors in their districts -- in what most certainly have been a grateful bow to the legislators for past assistance and an appeal for future budgetary generosity. One of these worthies, perhaps the rep from Salem, going straight tot he heart of the business, proclaimed that Massachusetts has the most celebrated literary history of any state in nation, praising his state straight-facedly as "the home of authors like Thoreau and Dr. Seuss."
Well, there you have it.
Thoreau and Dr. Seuss.
Who can beat that?