The early eighties were strange times for the National Book Award. At the turn of the decade, the award’s custodians decided to modernize its image. As Craig Fehrman described the scenario in the New York Times a few years ago, “If publishers were going to spend upward of $100,000 a year running the prizes—not to mention the costs of transporting and feting authors—they wanted something that would give them a better return on their investment.”
And so the National Book Awards—which were, at the time, frankly even more literary than they are today—were dissolved. In their stead came The American Book Awards, a wan bid for populist affection, as implied by that patriotic new name. (That capital T in The is essential.) “It will be run almost exactly the way the Academy Awards are run,” a spokesman told reporters, as if the fickle literary set were hankering for an injection of Hollywood glamour. Or Broadway glamour—a theater producer designed the set for the event, which was to be televised. An “academy” of more than two thousand publishing pros took part in the voting.
In 1979, awards were given in seven categories. In 1980, they were given in thirty-four, including typographical design, current-interest nonfiction, religion and inspiration, and—my personal favorite—general reference. In essence, the American Book Awards are to the National Book Awards as New Coke is to Coca-Cola Classic, i.e., a complete fucking disaster, one that all parties involved would prefer to forget.
But we shouldn’t forget, especially not now, the day after the National Book Award’s latest crop of winners has been announced. The American Book Awards serve as a reminder that ostensibly prestigious institutions—institutions whose authority and taste depend on their perceived stability—are just as susceptible to whims and trends as the rest of us, which is to say very.
I have a kinder point to make, though, which is that some of those American Book Award winners are actually very good at what they do. Take 1980’s general reference winner, Tim Brooks’s and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946–Present. I have to say, having spent several hours with its ninth edition (ca. 2007), that it’s a charming, gracefully written, and incredibly handy reference text, one that’s easily more broadening for the mind, and more fun to read, than some of the fiction to have won the National Book Award in recent years.
Like a lot of once-vital reference books, the Complete Directory’s purpose has been lately obviated by the Internet, that completest of directories. In the thoughtful compression of its writing, though, and the scope of its research, it argues for life beyond Wikipedia, which for all its comprehensiveness doesn’t include a lot of the TV shows mentioned in this book—and when it does, its writing on them isn’t nearly as smart. The Complete Directory does what all good reference books do: it gives readers a sense of the immense vastness of its subject, an easy way of accessing information on the specifics of that subject, and the chance to discover—by a happenstance that always feels magical in this sort of text—stuff that we never knew.
Most of the Directory’s bulk is devoted to capsule reviews of … well, every American network-television show of all time. Its back matter includes prime-time schedules for all the major networks spanning several decades, a kind of nostalgists’ TV Guide. What did CBS air at 9:30 P.M. on Mondays in Fall 1952, for instance? I’ll tell you. Hang on.
It was Life with Luigi. (“Luigi was a newly arrived Italian immigrant who was learning to love his new homeland. He did not always understand what everything meant, and often took things too literally … ”)
You can understand, then, why it won an award. It’s a series undertaking, a big old body of facts, and I imagine there was a time when it could be found on the shelves of any media studies professor, or on the coffee tables of any self-styled TV mavens, or maybe dog-eared in some network exec’s summer house.
Here are samples from three of its fluent, often wryly funny descriptions, all pertaining to old shows I’d never heard of.
Kobb’s Korner (CBS, 1948–9):
The Korn Kobblers were a group of accomplished musicians who, in addition to playing straight music, used mouth harps, whistles, sirens, cowbells, jugs, washboards, and anything else that would make a noise. Actress Hope Emerson played Maw Shufflebottom, the other of the general store, and Jo Hurt played her daughter Josiebelle.
Break the Bank (ABC/NBC, 1948–57)
Experts were brought in to answer complex question worth thousands of dollars. They did this while standing in a specially designed ‘Hall of Knowledge’ … Among the unusual contestants during this period were two Hungarian refugees just arrived in the United States (their category was ‘Fight for Freedom’) and the veteran actress-singer Ethel Waters, who said she needed the money to pay off back taxes (she won $10,000).
The Borden Show (NBC, 1947)
It opened outside the club with a shot of a group of autograph-seekers besieging an unseen celebrity—who turned out to be Elsie the Borden Cow, in marionette form. The camera then moved inside where emcee Wally Boag entertained with his rubber balloons.
Read enough of these and apposite phrases start to leap out at you—you’re steeped in a kind of dream vision of Americana, rife with stereotypes and easy laughs and the unnerving comforts of the overfamiliar—
Dagmar, the statuesque, well-endowed blonde … starred in this late-night variety show as the hostess of a real canteen for servicemen
An intelligent, dreamy boy whose great passion was bicycle racing
Rusty was incredibly gullible and constantly falling in love
Sonny and Will were two gypsy truck drivers from radically different backgrounds
Mayor Alcala was no youngster, having been in office for sixteen years
Only Gerald B. Hannahan, the balding, bombastic regional director of CIS, linked him with the world of spies and adventure
As we’ve written about before on the Daily, it’s hard not to miss these sorts of books, these hulking compendia with their claims to the definitive. The Complete Directory’s ninth edition still bears a small reminder of its past as a National Book Awards anomaly—AMERICAN BOOK AWARD WINNER!, says a small, many-pointed star on the backside. This in 2007, when the ABAs were more than twenty years gone. I like that lack of qualifications. There’s no asterisk to explain that the American Book Awards no longer exist; or that they do exist, kind of, just under a different and much more highly regarded name; or that they were eliminated in just a few years because people hated them. It just states the truth: this book won a major award.