All-Star Writers Search for Brooklyn’s Best Book in Borough’s Newest Literary Contest

Not the Community Bookstore, but in its spirit: A crazy stack of books on my crazy desk.

The idea that a single book can encapsulate the essence of any place might feel reductive, especially when the place in question is Brooklyn. Even so, a new project sponsored by the Brooklyn Public Library is launching this year, and has gathered an illustrious panel of Pulitzer Prize journalists and luminaries from the literary world to select a book that best represents Brooklyn’s elusive spirit, whatever that may be.

Selecting a winner for the Brooklyn Literary Eagles Prize should elicit debate about what makes something a “Brooklyn book.” Perhaps the decision will center around whether the subject matter addresses the borough’s history, or whether the characters represent Brooklyn’s diversity and ever-changing landscape. But while the criteria for finding a winner is kind of nebulous, the event’s structure is pretty cut and dry: Earlier in the year, different Brooklyn bookstores nominated various nonfiction and fiction titles, and sent their selections to the Brooklyn Public Library, where the books were evaluated by librarians, who then cut it down to a shortlist of six books; the three nonfiction and three fiction titles all cast a very wide categorical net, but relate in some way to the borough in question.

Among the six finalists, there’s James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods, a story of a mother’s struggle with poverty and addiction; DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center, a look at the effects of gentrification; and the The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice, centered around the twisted world of Coney Island’s 20th century sideshows.

It certainly seems like the panel of judges, comprising notable figures like Pulitzer-winning novelist Junot Diaz, New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, and Pulitzer-winning journalist Wesley Morris, have their work cut out for them, but as event co-chair of the nonfiction judge panel, Charles Duhigg thinks that’s part of the excitement.

Duhigg says that the Brooklyn Literary Eagles Prize can only further solidify the borough’s place as New York City’s literary nexus. “Everyone has this burning desire to live around other people who are doing exciting, important and creative things, who are pushing the boundaries of ideas,” he says, noting that Brooklyn qualifies as that specific creative breeding ground in present day. 

That being said, the winner of the Brooklyn Literary Eagles Prize could have written the quintessential Brooklyn book simply by virtue of residing in the borough, even if that book has little or nothing to do with the borough itself. Duhigg, an editor at the New York Times and a Pulitzer winner in his own right, talks about the confluence of influential writers in Kings County, saying it’s all part of the borough’s gravitational pull for creatives, which speaks to a certain mystique that’s often hard to pin down.“Walt Whitman wrote about it when he wrote Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” he tells me. “There’s something special about Brooklyn that continues to to be true.”

And for Jonathan Mahler, another New York Times staffer and judge on the award’s nonfiction panel, that specialness is reflected in the overwhelming glut of literature already written about Brooklyn throughout the years. In an email, Mahler wrote: “When you start to think about it, it’s not so hard to come up with the names of a lot of great books that could fairly be called ‘Brooklyn books’ (at least from a certain perspective),” naming Jonathan Lethem‘s Motherless Brooklyn, or David McCullough’s The Great Bridge.

“The history of the borough is just fascinating, so if you’re a writer and a thinker, you just find this place naturally interesting” Mahler says, noting that the borough’s history is constantly unfolding, which further adds to the difficulty of selecting an award winner.”Brooklyn’s a rapidly changing place, that’s why the idea of a Brooklyn book is so broad,” he says. 

Going back to Duhigg, who hopes that the award will only grow with time and, if not answer questions, at least foster spirited debate and potent ideas about what “Brooklyn” means. He says: “Is there a Brooklyn ethic? Ethos? I don’t know, but there is something that is Brooklyn.” One thing is certain for Duhigg though: The award will “spur a conversation among librarians and judges and among the public.” 

Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster 

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