After two long years, the Nashville Public Library Foundation (NPLF) was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to honor bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead with the 2021 Literary Award. Co-chairs Wanda Lyle and Gail Williams had initially planned to welcome the author in 2020, but after pivoting to a digital format last year, the two women decided to postpone Colson’s recognition so that he could be celebrated in person, and it proved well worth the wait.
The weekend’s festivities, which included a public lecture and the Patrons Party, culminated with the Literary Award Gala at the Nashville Public Library’s main branch. Guests sipped blood orange margaritas as they mingled in the lobby before making their way upstairs for dinner. Martha and Malcolm Greenwood of Big Events transformed the Grand Reading Room for the affair, relying on rich jewel tones to set a sophisticated tone. Deep aubergine tablecloths with gold embellishments and lush purple centerpieces were the perfect décor for the crisp late-fall fête.
After dinner, NPLF President Shawn Bakker paid tribute to longtime supporter Kay Simmons, who helped start the gala, with a moment of silence and thanked the co-chairs for making this event a success two years in a row. She also reflected on the importance of the diverse work of the library and the communities it impacts. “There’s no single institution that addresses as many different needs as Nashville Public Library,” she said. This year alone, there were 19,000 new library cards issued, and 12.3 million minutes of reading were clocked in the citywide reading challenge.
The evening concluded with a speech from Colson that was thoughtful, humorous and wildly entertaining. The author — who has written 10 bestselling books, won two Pulitzers and a National Book Award, and received a MacArthur Fellowship — captivated the crowd as he talked about everything from writing moving “think pieces” on the finales of Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss to his many unanswered questions about Star Wars. At one point, he even had the audience singing along with him to Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park.” He was as engaging in person as he is in print, showcasing his brilliant — and, at times, absurd — humor and creativity.
As the newest Literary Award honoree, Colson joins the esteemed company of 17 previous recipients that includes John Lewis, Margaret Atwood and David McCullough. Readers and writers alike will wait with anticipation to see who the NPLF celebrates next.