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Colum McCann novel wins national fiction book award

NEW YORK — The 60th annual National Book Awards was a night to celebrate literature and to wonder about its future.

Lifetime achievement winner Gore Vidal envisioned only pulp and dust Wednesday as he contemplated the state of books, while fellow honorary winner Dave Eggers declared that we live in a golden age. The evening's host, Andy Borowitz, joked that the meaning of publishing was "a lot of hard work. Then nothing."

As the e-book march advances, both Eggers and fiction winner Colum McCann insisted that paper texts were stronger than ever. McCann won the fiction prize for "Let the Great World Spin," a novel about daring, luck and mortality in the pre-digital world of 1970s New York.

He has called his book an act of hope written in part as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Accepting his prize, McCann praised the generosity of American fiction and of the American people. He dedicated the win to a fellow Irish-American, "good old" Frank McCourt. "I think he's dancing upstairs," McCann said of the "Angela's Ashes" memoirist, who died last summer after a battle with cancer.

T.J. Stiles' biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, "The First Tycoon," was the nonfiction winner. Keith Waldrop's "Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy" won for poetry. The young people's literature award went to Phillip Hoose's "Claudette Colvin," based on the true story of an early civil rights heroine, who was shaken with emotion as she joined Hoose on the stage.

Hoose thanked Colvin for letting him relate her story, which he had feared would vanish "under history's rug."

"We have saved that story," he said of Colvin, 70, who as a teenager was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, months before a similar incident made Rosa Parks a symbol of defiance.

Stories of oppressors and underdogs, of rich and poor, were common themes among Wednesday night's nominees.

Finalists included Bonnie Jo Campbell's short fiction about hard times in Michigan, "American Salvage," and Daniyal Mueenuddin's tales of the class divide in Pakistan, "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders."

Money, or lack of it, also shaded McCann's book and two other nominated novels: Marcel Theroux's "Far North" and Jayne Anne Phillips' "Lark & Termite."

"Money does matter, especially when you haven't got any," Campbell said during a recent interview. "A lot of the trouble in my book comes from folks not having enough money to get by."