My wife and I were delighted to be invited to the Carl Sandberg Literary Awards Dinner for the benefit of the Chicago Public Library and Foundation. It was held at the Forum at the University of Illinois in downtown Chicago.
Chicago has a cavalcade of talent when it comes to literary achievements. Bill Kurtis, the CBS News anchor, was the master of ceremonies for the evening, and introduced 67 local authors, representing a variety of media and genres, in the collections of the Chicago Public Library. As these authors paraded onto the stage to appreciative applause, Bill Kurtis informed the audience of each author’s achievements. As he pointed out, Chicago is a city with a long history of literary talent, consider Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel to name just two.
From this parade of talent, three authors had been selected to receive the Carl Sandberg Literary Awards. The 21st Century Award was given to Nami Mun. She grew up in Seoul, South Korea and in the Bronx, New York. Her first novel, “Miles from Nowhere,” received a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange prize for new Writers and the Asian American Literary Award. Chicago Magazine named her the best new novelist of 2009. She talked to the audience about her amazing history. She had been homeless, a street vendor, waitress, an activities coordinator for a nursing home, an Avon lady, photojournalist and criminal defense investigator. After earning a GED, she went on to get a BA in English from UC Berkeley and an MFA from the University of Michigan and is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College in Chicago. She was modest about her achievements but pointed out that America had given her enormous opportunities to succeed, despite her lack of education, background and immigrant status. This is a true American success story and perhaps a lesson as to why we should not be so quick to abandon Government intervention and programs to help immigrants and the poor.
The moderator Scott Simon co-host of NPR’s weekend edition, interviewed on stage Don DeLillo and Walter Isaacson, recipients of the Carl Sandberg Literary Awards for fiction and non-fiction. DeLillo is the author of 15 novels. He published his first short story when he was 23, has won the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction and the Jerusalem prize. In 2006 his masterpiece “Underworld” was named as one of the best novels of the last 25 years by the New York Times book review. DeLillo has said his books could not have been written in the world that existed before the assassination of President Kennedy. The after-effects of that moment of violence were caught on film and informed his work generally and contributed directly to “Libra” his acclaimed novel about the assassination.
The non-fiction award given to Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute and nonpartisan educational policy studies, is based in Washington DC and has also been chairman and CEO of CNN and the editor of Time Magazine. Most recently he is the author of “Steve Jobs” and also wrote the biography of “Einstein” “Benjamin Franklin” and “Kissinger.” Isaacson was born in New Orleans and began his career at the Sunday Times of London. He joined Time Magazine in 1978 and served as a political correspondent.
The patter between these learned authors and Scott Simon was entertaining and informative. Particularly when Isaacson said that he would now only do biographies of people who had died, recounting the pressure that he received from Kissinger on a daily basis while he was writing his biography. DeLillo said he likes to mix historical fact with fiction and while Isaacson was writing about the great men in history, the nearest he came was writing about Lee Harvey Oswald. This received appreciative laughter from the audience.
The Chairman of the Public Library Foundation Board of Directors, announced the evening had raised one million dollars for the Chicago Public Library. He also expressed his gratitude to the various sponsors who made the event possible.
My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and of course the company of our hosts. We now have enough books between us to keep us busy for the next 12 months.
Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com