Anne Enright's novel The Forgotten Waltz is the first winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, while Robert K. Massie's biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman captured the nonfiction prize. Both awards were announced Sunday night at the American Library Association's annual convention in Anaheim.

The  selection committee was lead by Nancy Pearl, the former librarian and author of Book Lust who is one of the nation's best known champions of books and reading. Pearl and a committee of three librarians and three staffers of ALA's Booklist magazine were charged with selecting the best fiction and nonfiction published in the U.S. last year.

Shortly before the announcement of the award winners, we asked Pearl to tell us more about the new Carnegie Medal and what she thinks its place will be in the "reading ecosystem."

After reading so many books during the selection process, how would you characterize the current state of American literature, particularly in fiction, where the Pulitzer board declined to give an award this year?
I know that I speak for my fellow judges when I say that based on the reading we did American literature, both fiction and nonfiction, is alive and well. Frankly, that’s what drove us all nearly crazy as we read through the 40 titles on our longlist. Because there were so many excellent books published in 2011, narrowing the list to three finalists was hard, and selecting a final winner was even more difficult.

Why was the Carnegie Medal established? How do you think it fits in—or stands out from—the existing awards for fiction and nonfiction?
For those of us in the library and publishing worlds who work with adult literature, an award like the Carnegie Medal has been a long time coming. I think we’ve all looked with frankly envious eyes at the success of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, for example, and wished for something on that scale honoring adult books. I’m thrilled that our wish has come true.

The Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction were established with one goal in mind: to celebrate the best of the best in literature for adult readers. It’s just lovely, too, that the first annual awarding of the Carnegie Medals is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Carnegie Corporation. Andrew Carnegie’s role in building libraries across the world cannot be exaggerated, and I think he’d be very happy to know that these awards are a collaboration between the American Library Association and the foundation that bears his name.

I believe that the Carnegie Medals add a fourth to the troika (the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award) of literary awards. All four awards honor outstanding fiction and nonfiction for adults. The major difference between the Carnegie Medals and the other awards is the unique composition of our panel of judges: we have four librarians (two from academic libraries and two (including me) from public libraries, and three editors from ALA’s Booklist, a magazine that plays a central role in helping librarians decide what books to purchase for their libraries. Together—and let me say that this was a terrific committee to be part of—we bring to the task of choosing the finalists and the winners many decades worth of experience. Members of the judging panel are all library professionals who work closely with adult readers, and the list of finalists and eventual winners reflect our expert judgment and insight.

Why is this medal important?
The library—be it academic or public—plays a central role in the reading ecosystem. The Carnegies highlight the important role librarians play in opening up the world of books to both new readers and avid book lovers alike. And the Carnegies will serve as a guide to adults looking for quality reading material.

Finally, we can’t pass up an opportunity to ask what you are reading strictly for personal pleasure this summer.
I have many books next to my nightstand that are going to be part of my summer reading. (I would be too nervous to pile them on my nightstand because I’m afraid they’ll tip over on top of me should Seattle have another earthquake!) So right now I’m reading and thoroughly enjoying G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, which is fascinating on so many levels. The next four books down, which I’ll read in no particular order, just whichever fits my mood, are Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King (I’m a huge fan); Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With (I’m so glad that Oconee Spirit Press just reissued this long out of print title); Fountain of Age, a collection of stories by Nancy Kress (I really enjoyed her novel Beggars in Spain); and China Mieville’s Railsea (I loved Un Lun Don, and this is another novel for kids). But the judges and I are getting books published in 2012 to consider for next year’s Carnegies, so I will be fitting in those as well. Lots of good reading to look forward to.

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