Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, a bleak but determined novel about a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina, has won the National Book Award for fiction.
Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, a dramatic account of the Renaissance era rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius, won for nonfiction Wednesday night.
The poetry prize went to Nikki Finney's Head Off & Split, an impassioned summation of African-American history, while Thanhhai Lai's "Inside Out & Back Again," the story of a Vietnamese family in Alabama, won for young people's literature.
Winners each receive $10,000.
Actor-author John Lithgow hosted the ceremony, declaring himself humbled before the "great thoughts," ''quicksilver wit" and "eloquent locution" among the writers, editors, publishers and others gathered.
Honorary prizes were given to Florida-based bookseller Mitch Kaplan, who looked back warmly on a 30-year career/calling in a business he found more fulfilling than law school, and poet John Ashbery, who called writing a "pleasure I can almost taste." In a self-deprecating speech, he acknowledged that even intelligent people find what he writes "makes no sense" and "near root canal" as an experience to read.
"I never meant for it to be (difficult)," he said. "I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves over to something that may change us."
The 62nd annual National Book Awards were held in the gilded, columned confines of Cipriani Wall Street, not far from the economic protests of the past two months.
"I thought I should point out, since nobody else has," said poet Ann Lauterbach, who introduced Ashbery, "that we are occupying Wall Street."