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Joan Didion wins National Book Award

Joan Didion, whose memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” is quickly becoming a classic portrait of grief, won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night.

“There’s hardly anything I can say about this except thank you,” said Didion, praising her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for supporting her as she wrote her acclaimed best seller about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the illness of her daughter, Quintana Roo.

The 70-year-old Didion, who had never won the National Book Award, has long been idolized by writers for her precise, incisive fiction and literary journalism. But “The Year of Magical Thinking” brought her a large readership, too, with booksellers saying that her memoir has been especially in demand from those who lost a loved one or knew someone who had.

Few were surprised by Didion’s victory. Few were not surprised by the announcement for fiction: William T. Vollmann, cited for “Europe Central,” an 800-page novel, complete with footnotes, about Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. E.L. Doctorow’s “The March” and Mary Gaitskill’s “Veronica” had been regarded as the leading contenders.

“I thought I would lose, so I didn’t prepare a speech,” said Vollmann, 46, who then turned serious as he said his book was inspired by a film he saw in elementary school “about burned corpses being pulled out of ovens.”

Vollmann noted he was part German and wondered what he would have done had he lived under the Nazis.

“I’m very happy it’s over,” he said of his book, “and that I don’t have to think about it anymore.”

Vollmann, whose Web site refers to him, perhaps in jest, as a “future winner of the Nobel Prize for literature,” is a prolific writer with a history of going long, his many works including a seven-volume, 3,000-page work on the history of violence.

“It makes me happy to try to do something beautiful. The world doesn’t owe me a living,” he said after the ceremony.

One of the world’s great poets, 78-year-old W.S. Merwin, won his first National Book Award, for “Migration,” which includes selections from 15 previous compilations. The young people’s literature award went to Jeanne Birdsall, whose debut novel, “The Penderwicks,” tells of four sisters and their widowed father.

Birdsall, 54, quoted from a letter from a young fan named Scott: “This book is about being a good listener, even if you’re a grown-up.” She had tried writing a novel for adults in her early 40s, said it nearly ruined her marriage, then took a shot at a children’s book three years ago.

“My husband is floating on air,” she said after the ceremony.

Winners each received $10,000. Garrison Keillor hosted and honorary medals went to Norman Mailer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Mailer was introduced by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who praised him extensively but couldn’t help pointing out his “almost comic obtuseness about women.” The 82-year-old Mailer, recovering from heart surgery and limping to the stage on bad knees, responded: “I’m obtuse about women, but also wary of them.”

Mailer has long lamented the decline of the novel and continued to do so Wednesday night, likening himself to a carriage maker helpless before the arrival of the automobile. Vollmann, the fiction winner, did not disagree.

“The book is probably going to become an irrelevant object,” he said. “I’m just going to stick it out as long as I can.”

The awards, now in their 56th year, are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses money raised by the ceremony to fund its educational programs.

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