EVERY YEAR, Publishers Weekly, commonly referred to in this business as "the Bible of the book trade," sponsors the Carey-Thomas Awards for a distinguished project in book publishing. Unlike the more famous National Book Awards or the National Book Critics Circle Awards or the Pulitzer Prizes, the Carey-Thomas goes not to the author, but to the publisher, for taking the risk, advancing the project, supporting it with a whole heart.
This year, the Honor Citation went to Louisiana State University Press for Slave Testimony, edited by John W. Blassingame. Special Citations were earned by The Jargon Society for its 27 years of creative small-press publising. New Directions for distinguished publishing in poetry and experimental fiction, and Yate University Press for its Yale Series of Younger Poets. The winners, jurors, Publishers Weekly executives and press assembled for lunch at the Algonquin to see the awards presented, to hear the recipients' remarks, and to bend a convivial elbow.
The speeches were grateful and literate, laughed at politely and politely applauded, until Ben Raeburn, president and editor of Horizon Press, got up to speak. Horizon won the Carey-Thomas this year for its 1977 publication of An Autobiography by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Raeburn spoke quietly, slowly and with feeling - and at his conclusion, everybody stood to applaud. I wish I had space for every word, but here is the heart of Ben Raeburn's short and moving speech:
"It all happened in a few days, really, but it goes back to a train ride in my college days when I came across a one-sentence filler about a man named Frank Lloyd Wright, then unknown to me, which quoted him as saying that the city would die unless it was decentralized - a common enough warning today, but a streak of lightning to me over 40 years ago.
"I read everything I could find by him and about him - and then his autobiography. It was a revelation. I came to regard it as one of the great books in American literature and I read it so often that I may have had pages of it by heart. I learned to read architectural plans, I traveled to see his houses, and I discovered what he meant by marrying a house to the ground; the landscape and the house being grateful to each other."
Twenty years later, Raeburn started Horizon Press, and wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright, explaining what the architect's work meant to him. Two days later, "I received a telegram saying: 'You sound like just what's needed. Come at once.' I couldn't go that day, and I wired him saying so. That was a Friday. Sunday my phone rang. It was 6:30 in the morning. A voice said: "This is Frank Lloyd Wright, I am at the Plaza. Can you be here for breakfast at 7:00?' I made it, steering through the sleeping streets of New York just after dawn, in time to meet him. When I came in he was striding up and back, chewing on a hard roll - a farmer hungry at 7:00 am - and he said, 'Ben, can you give me one good reason why I should let you publish me instead of the big boys on Fifth Avenue with the big apparatus who are after me?" All I could summon up was: 'No. But I think I know your work better than you do.' He stopped still, looked at me, came up and looked close in my eyes, and after a long moment said, 'I believe you,' and shook my hand. And that was it.
"During those seven years of his life, I published seven books by him - and nine more since. It was a marvelous relationship for me. He turned out to be the humblest author I have ever worked with, grateful for any criticism, full of humor, quick to consider every suggestion toward clarity - the very opposite of his public legend.
"All through those years, his autobiography, in an enlarged edition published years before I met him, lay on his table. Mrs. Wright had had it bound in leather, in five slim boxed volumes, as a gift to him, and whenever he had some time he kept making handwritten corrections between the lines and in the margins. He would read passages to me and I to him. It was like hearing him think, every revision clarifying, every superfluous word deleted, his conscience constantly working toward accuracy. And one day - as it turned out, shortly before his death - he picked the treasure up and handed it to me, 16 years of work, saying only: 'Here, Ben, it's yours.'
"That work, with all those revisions, is the definitive Frank Lloyd Wright autobiography which you have honored."