“The Life of a Book” by Don DeLillo

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Don DeLillo is the National Book Foundation‘s 2015 Medalist for Distinguished Contribution To American Letters. The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters recognizes individuals who have made an exceptional impact on this country’s literary heritage.

He has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize for his complete body of work, and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2010, he was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Prize. The Angel Esmeralda was a finalist for the 2011 Story Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In 2012, DeLillo received the Carl Sandburg Literary Award for his body of work.

In the video clip above, you can hear Don DeLillo’s speech that he gave on the evening of November 18, 2015, at the National Book Awards Ceremony. I have transcribed it below.


This is why we’re here this evening.

Lately I’ve been looking at books that stand on two long shelves in a room just down the hall from the room where I work.

Early books, paperbacks every one, the first books I ever owned, and they resemble some kind of medieval plunder.

Old and scarred, with weathered covers and sepia pages that might crumble at the touch of a human finger. I’m the human in the story, and when I lift a book from the shelf, gently, I understand again the power of memory that a book carries with it.

What is there to remember? Who I was, where I was, what these books meant to me when I read them for the first time.

The House of the Dead. Dostoyevsky. First Dell printing, June 1959. Fifty cents.

Adventures in the Skin Trade. Dylan Thomas. Badly bruised copy. First printing, May 1956.

Cover illustration includes a woman wearing black stockings and nothing else. There are numbers scrawled on the inside of the front cover. Did I writes these numbers? Do I remember the naked woman more clearly than I recall the stories in the book? A Signet book. Thirty-five cents.

Words on paper, books as objects, hand-held, each wrinkled spine bearing a title. The lives inside, authors and characters. The lives of the books themselves. Books in rooms. The one-room apartment where I used to live and where I read the books that stand on the shelves all these years later, and where I became a writer myself.

Many of these books were packed in boxes, hidden for years. Maybe this is why I find myself gazing like a museum goer at the two long rows in the room down the hall.

Reflections in a Golden Eye. Carson McCullers.

The margins of each page resembling the nicotine stains on a smoker’s hand back in the time when the book was written. Bantam Books, fourth printing, 1953. Twenty-five cents.

Are any of the writers of these old frail volumes still alive? I don’t have to study the authors’ names to think of recent departures. Friends: Gil Sorrentino and Peter Matthiessen and Edgar Doctorow. Others I did not get to know nearly as well. Bob Stone and Jim Salter.

Book. The word. A set of written, printed or blank pages fastened along one side and encased between protective covers. An old definition, needing to be expanded now in the vaporous play of electronic devices.

But here are the shelves with the old paperbacks, books still in their native skin, and when I visit the room I’m not the writer who has just been snaking his way through some sentences on a sheet of paper curled into an old typewriter.

That’s the guy who lives down the hall.

Here, I’m not the writer at all. I’m the grateful reader.

Thank you for this honor.

In The Paris Review interview, he explained why he became a writer:

Maybe I wanted to learn how to think. Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them. Maybe I wanted to find more rigorous ways of thinking. We’re talking now about the earliest writing I did and about the power of language to counteract the wallow of late adolescence, to define things, define muddled experience in economical ways. Let’s not forget that writing is convenient. It requires the simplest tools. A young writer sees that with words and sentences on a piece of paper that costs less than a penny he can place himself more clearly in the world. Words on a page, that’s all it takes to help him separate himself from the forces around him, streets and people and pressures and feelings. He learns to think about these things, to ride his own sentences into new perceptions. How much of this did I feel at the time? Maybe just an inkling, an instinct. Writing was mainly an unnameable urge, an urge partly propelled by the writers I was reading at the time.

Don DeLillo’s Backlist
Americana, 1971
End Zone, 1972
Great Jones Street, 1973
Ratner’s Star, 1976
Players, 1977
Running Dog, 1978
Amazons, 1980
The Names, 1982
White Noise, 1985
Libra, 1988.
Mao II, 1991
Underworld, 1997
The Body Artist, 2001
“Pafko at the Wall” (novella), 1991
Cosmopolis, 2003
Falling Man, 2007
Point Omega, 2010
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, 2011

For Further Reading

The 2015 Medalist for Distinguished Contribution To American Letters

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Adventures in the Skin Trade by Dylan Thomas

Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers

Gil Sorrentino

Peter Matthiessen

Edgar Doctorow

Bob Stone

Jim Salter

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