Bookmakers

by Paul Hond
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Illustration by Mark Steele 1966: Eric Banks ’88CC is born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In New York, Katherine Anne Porter wins the National Book Award for fiction and the Pulitzer Prize. Kauai King wins the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but finishes fourth in the Belmont Stakes.

1975: John Ashbery ’50GSAS publishes his poetry collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Eric Banks listens on the radio to a battle of the sexes between the magnificent filly Ruffian and the Derby-winning colt Foolish Pleasure. On the backstretch at Belmont Park, Ruffian breaks down, and is later destroyed.

1976: Ashbery’s Self-Portrait wins the literary triple crown — the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the first-ever National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) award for poetry. Banks, for his tenth birthday, receives from his father an open account at the local bookstore.

1977: Seattle Slew wins that other Triple Crown. Banks reads On the Road.

1978: Affirmed wins the Triple Crown. Of the eleven Triple Crown wins in history, this is the only time two have come back-to-back, putting a gallop in a boy’s chest in Vicksburg. Ashbery is an NBCC poetry finalist for Houseboat Days. In the criticism category, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties, by Morris Dickstein ’61CC, finishes behind Susan Sontag’s On Photography.

1979: The NBCC finalists for criticism include three books by Columbians: Orientalism, by Professor Edward Said, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, by Professor Meyer Schapiro ’24CC, ’35GSAS, and The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, by Mississippian Eudora Welty, who attended the business school in the early thirties. It’s Modern Art by a nose.

1981: Banks enters high school in Vicksburg, where the reading is skewed toward Oxford’s William Faulkner. Greenville-raised Walker Percy ’41PS is an NBCC fiction finalist for The Second Coming.

1981–2011: MTV. The Internet. Amazon. Barnes & Noble megastores. E-books. Reports of death, some exaggerated, some not: the death of independent bookshops, of newspapers, of book-review sections, of publishing, of Barnes & Noble.

2012: Books still exist. So does the NBCC. So does Eric Banks, who, as the NBCC’s president, has just marshaled his first NBCC Awards — a month of events and intense book devouring, culminating in a two-day run of readings and ceremonies — and is well-nigh about to drop.

“I feel like a character in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” says Banks, the day after the NBCC Awards ceremony in New York. (Lest one think Banks has a one-track mind, the referenced novel concerns not Equus caballus but a group of Depression-era dance marathoners.) Banks, a Southern-inflected gentleman of lavender shirts, white-and-black checked jackets, and glasses perhaps unavoidably evocative of Tennessee Williams, has an out-of-time quality, and would not appear incongruous at a Plimpton cocktail party circa 1963 or in the grandstand last summer at Saratoga or at the Algonquin Hotel in 1974 when critics John Leonard, Nona Balakian ’43JRN, and Ivan Sandrof got the idea for a book award granted by working critics and reviewers. Banks, in preparation for the 2012 awards, has been reading, chairing panels, deliberating with the other critics, stuffing goody bags for the guests, printing out thank-you letters to the finalists, and rushing to the market to pick up lemons, limes, and an extra bottle of vodka for the reception.

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