This year, the National Book Awards ceremony comes at a time when the nation has rarely seemed more divided. The bitter presidential campaign exposed a fault line in the United States that will not easily be repaired. And while there's no one simple answer, Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation, recommends one way to understand the other side: read.
"My life is small" she says, "and I think books are a way to make your life larger."
Lucas has an almost unbounded belief in the power of reading. She took over the reins of the influential foundation last March (you can hear more about that in the audio story above). On Wednesday, she steps into the spotlight when the organization hosts the National Book Awards in New York. This will be the first time Lucas presides over the annual event, which is all about celebrating great writers and great books.
Lucas is an avid social media user, but she doesn't believe Twitter will ever replace books — they're just too different. You don't scroll through a book quickly while waiting in line for a latte. When you read a book, you enter another world, and you have to spend time in that world. Reading a book, Lucas says, is a "protracted engagement" with people who are different from you personally, culturally and — perhaps most important at this moment — politically.
"We all need to be reading across the lines we've drawn in our lives," she says.
For her friends and colleagues in New York City, that may mean picking up one of this year's nonfiction finalists, Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild about Tea Party conservatives in Louisiana's bayou country. And Lucas wishes the people Hochschild interviewed for her book would read last year's nonfiction winner, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, about what it means to be black in America.
She says a book is a great connector, so the next time you're looking for something to read, "don't just read the thing that you think is for you ... read the thing that's not."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Book lovers will be gathering in New York on Wednesday for the National Book Awards. This is the first year that Lisa Lucas will be presiding over the ceremony. She is the new head of the foundation that gives out the awards, and as you might expect for someone in her job, she is a passionate advocate for books and reading. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: The National Book Award ceremony is often described as the Oscars of the book world. Of course, it's not watched by millions, but for those attending the event, it's just as important. Some writers, like Justin Spring, who was nominated for nonfiction in 2010, are amazed by the sheer glamour of the event.
JUSTIN SPRING: It's electric. You know, you work for nine or 10 years in a basement writing a book. Nobody seems to understand you. You can't explain what you're doing to anyone. And here tonight everybody is greeting me as if I'm somebody. It's wonderful.
NEARY: It's just that kind of electric energy that Lisa Lucas wants to use to ignite a renewed passion for books and reading, especially among the young.
LISA LUCAS: We do want young people to feel like this is cool, like this is glamorous, like this is actually as important as music or theater or dance or film.
NEARY: When the National Book Foundation was looking for a new executive director, board member Morgan Entrekin says they wanted someone who could build on some of the changes they made in recent years. Entrekin says as soon as the board met Lucas, they knew they'd found the right person.
MORGAN ENTREKIN: She is one of the most dynamic, charismatic, energetic young people in any field I've ever met.
NEARY: Lucas is also African-American, and Entrekin says that's important in an industry that's known for being overwhelmingly white.
ENTREKIN: Those of us who are kind of controlling or influencing the flow of information and discourse in society, we need to really have a diversity of voices contributing to the decisions. And honestly we weren't. Our agenda wasn't a diverse candidate, and it just happened that she is this brilliant woman - well, brilliant and happens to be a woman and happens to be African-American.
NEARY: Lucas says her most important job going forward will be choosing the judges who decide which books will be nominated and ultimately win the National Book Award. Diversity is important in that decision, says Lucas, and she's comfortable talking about the issue because she understands it from the inside out.
LUCAS: Just being black, being me, makes me recognize that that's important. It's just - I don't have to stretch. I don't have to do, you know, a committee on diversity to think about other communities. I don't have to think about who's excluded because I've been excluded.
NEARY: But Lucas' larger goal is to get people back into the habit of reading for pleasure. And she insists we do have time for it.
LUCAS: We're fitting things in. We go to yoga. We meditate. You know, we go see plays. We're watching 12 hours in one sitting of great television shows. We have room. I think it's just about reminding people that this is exciting. Reading has always been fun. We don't need to make it fun again so much as we need to remind people that it is fun.
NEARY: Lucas wants people to read across the boundaries they've drawn around their lives. She sees that as a way to heal the divisions that were exposed by the bitter presidential race.
LUCAS: I think that it's a great connector. It creates empathy. It creates understanding. It allows you to live in someone else's shoes in a way that nothing else for me does. And I think that that creates these connections between human beings that are changing, that are profoundly transformative.
NEARY: On Wednesday, Lisa Lucas will be hosting the biggest party of her life, and she's ready to have some fun. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.