Last Night

Last Night: Patti Smith

By Josh Feit November 24, 2010


I have good taste in books. Or more to the point: I'm getting old.

I've noticed that the books I read lately always end up winning big prizes. Three hefty hardcovers I plunked down cash for the second they came out in recent years have all won big prizes. The Race Beat won a Pulitzer, The Looming Tower won a Pulitzer, and Alex Ross' history of 20th century music, The Rest is Noise, was a Pulitzer finalist, landing on the New York Times' ten best books of 2007 while also winning the National Book Critics Circle Award.

I don't think it's so much that these books are uniquely great. I think it's that the people handing out the awards are white guys who are my age and who have the same interests I have; what these books have in common is that they catalog some giant themes of the 20th century. (While Looming Tower is a 9/11 book, its achievement is how it delineates the rise of Islamic radicalism in the late 20th century, a storyline that emerged in the post-boomer generation as I was growing up. The 1979 hostage crisis was a big deal.)

I'm getting all confessional here because one book I didn't pick up, but have been tempted to buy repeatedly this year, is Patti Smith's Just Kids. (Love Patti Smith!) Well, go figure, it won the National Book Award for best non-fiction last week. And go figure, it's a memoir about a pivotal cultural moment in the late 20th century—late 1960s/early '70s Manhattan, a time and place that pretty much defined hipsterdom for the remaining decades of the century.

It's a good book—I bought it this week, but it's not outstanding or anything. Just as the victors write history, I think the oldsters hand out the prizes as they realize their generation is fading from the spotlight.
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