by Paul Hond
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On the evening of March 8, four hundred people crowded into the New School’s Tishman Auditorium to witness this literary Run for the Roses. The event was free and open to the public, but it had the feel of an advance-sale affair. A few flashbulbs burst in the front rows, raising the glamour factor a notch, but never beyond a level of tasteful understatement, a sense of proportion in the digital age. The atmosphere was one of reverence for books, not personalities. A luster of high accomplishment did radiate from the thoroughbreds in the room, but any air of intimidation was genteelly absorbed into a larger spirit that followed Banks’s lead: humble, gracious, bighearted, hungry for the printed word.

In his opening remarks, Robert Polito, director of the New School’s writing programs, honored the NBCC’s thirty-seven-year history by reading a passage from the title poem of Ashbery’s Self-Portrait that began:

On the surface of it
There seems no special reason why that light
Should be focused by love . . .

Polito then introduced Banks, who informed the audience that the six winners — for autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — had been selected just an hour before. This gave matters a fresh-off-the-presses glow. “We are fortunate,” Banks said, “to have represented on the stage this evening the most exemplary works published in 2011.”

“The most exciting thing about Columbia for me was the great-books program,” says Banks, who was an anthropology major and a John Jay Scholar. While chewing on Homer and Plato, Banks sat in on Andreas Huyssen’s class in the Department of Germanic Languages, where he read Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt School writers. In anthropologist Robert Murphy’s Introduction to Structuralism, he studied Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, and Althusser. He gives much credit for this intellectual romp to the efforts of Michael Rosenthal ’67GSAS, the assistant dean at the time. “The John Jay Scholarship, which Rosenthal oversaw, made it possible for me to come to Columbia,” Banks says. “Rosenthal was incredibly generous about helping students. I was a middleclass kid from a small town, and he and the program made me feel comfortable.”

After Columbia, Banks began graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago. It was in the Windy City that he developed a taste for playing the ponies. He frequented two Chicago racetracks — Sportsman’s Park and Hawthorne, which he describes as “rinky-dink, the equivalent of a bad card at Aqueduct.” He worked as a copyeditor for the University of Chicago Press, but the horses, too, kept his critical faculties sharp. “I love handicapping, looking at a set of races and trying to figure out which horse is the most likely winner. You have to process a lot of information and determine what’s relevant and what’s not.”

Banks returned to New York in 1994. He freelanced as a copyeditor at the university presses of Oxford, Chicago, and Nebraska, and for Zone Books, which was publishing art-history and theoretical texts from France being translated for the first time. A year later, he became a senior editor at Artforum, and in 2002 he resurrected that journal’s book review, Bookforum, where he was editor in chief until 2008. That year, Banks joined the board of the NBCC, and in March 2011 he was elected president.

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