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Auster Receives 2009 NAIBA Legacy Award

October 14, 2009

Paul Auster was presented with the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association’s Legacy Award, which goes to “individuals whose body of work has contributed significantly to the realm of American arts and letters.” Below is Auster’s acceptance speech, which he delivered at the NAIBA fall conference awards banquet on Sunday, October 4, in Baltimore, Md.

“He rarely bought anything, but he liked to spend the odd hour or half hour before his shift began browsing among the used books on the ground floor. Thousands of items were crammed onto the shelves down there – everything from out-of-print dictionaries to forgotten bestsellers to leather-bound sets of Shakespeare – and Tom had always felt at home in that kind of paper mausoleum, flipping through piles of discarded books and breathing in the old dusty smells.”

Like Tom Wood, a character in my novel The Brooklyn Follies, I spent my youth in bookstores. I’m talking about the sixties and early seventies, a time before the birth of the mega-chains, a time when all bookstores were independent bookstores, a time when you were allowed to smoke in bookstores, and by cultivating the art of browsing, which is finally an art of curiosity and patience, I discovered untold numbers of books and writers I never would have found in any other setting. Yes, I went to school and studied under many teachers over the years, but bookstores were an essential part of my education, no less important than school, perhaps even more important than school.

There is no feeling like that of entering a good bookstore – which is to say, a store guided by a rigorous literary intelligence, someone with taste, acumen, and a position about what is necessary, fundamental, and new – not new in the sense of fads and weightless ephemera, but new in the sense of what, in the judgment of that literary intelligence, will in time become necessary and fundamental. A bookstore is not a library. It cannot contain all books, but only some books, and if, within that some, nearly all are of interest, then you will trust the mind that put them there and think of that store as a second home.

I think back to 1967, my sophomore year at Columbia, poking around one afternoon in the university bookstore and stumbling upon a small bilingual anthology of contemporary French poetry, a book filled with poets I had never heard of, and because I was taken with much of what was in that book, I bought it, and in some sense – no, in all senses – my life was changed. One of the poets in that anthology, who was represented by just two or three poems, Jacques Dupin, so impressed me that I made it my business to track down the books he had published in French, and because I continued to be impressed, I wound up translating a substantial selection of his poems, which turned into one of the first books I ever published and led to further explorations of modern French poetry, culminating in the large project I began in the late seventies, The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, the 600-page anthology I edited and which was published in 1982.

Without that visit to the bookstore in 1967, none of this ever would have happened. And the now 82-year-old Jacques Dupin would not still be one of my closest friends today.

I admit that I feel nostalgic. In my own city of New York, so many superb bookstores have gone out of business in the past years that the epidemic has reached tragic proportions. The Eighth Street Bookstore, the grand literary emporium of my youth, has been a shoe store for more than two decades now. The Gotham Book Mart – “Wise Men Fish Here” – the home of the James Joyce Society, the home in exile for André Breton and other French Surrealists during World War II – closed its doors recently. Books and Company is gone. Endicott Books is gone. Coliseum Books is gone. There have been some replacements, yes, and Saint Mark’s Bookstore carries on its noble work, but for a city of more than eight million people, we are impoverished. College towns such as Cambridge, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison have a more vigorous bookstore culture than we do, and I now live with the fear – the strange and contradictory fear – that if the major chains collapse – and in this economic climate who is to say that isn’t possible? – America will be a country with fewer bookstores than Portugal (population 10 million) or Iceland (population 300,000).

The point being: Thank you all for what you are doing. Writers depend on you, readers depend on you, and the intellectual life of our country depends on you. To browse. What a beautiful word. To wander among books, to make discoveries, to be changed forever by an unknown volume pulled by impulse off a shelf. You, the independent booksellers, are the ones who make this possible.

Thank you so much for giving me this award.

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