Joan Didion won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night for "The Year of Magical Thinking." Didion's book is an intensely felt re-creation of the disorienting mental and emotional turmoil she underwent after her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly and their only daughter fell deathly ill.

"There's hardly anything I can say about this but thank you," the writer said from the stage in the Marriott Marquis ballroom as the crowd rose to applaud her. Didion also thanked those at her publisher, Knopf, "who accepted my idea that I could sit down and write a book that was not anything but personal -- and that it would work."

The strong nonfiction field also included Leo Damrosch's biography "Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius"; Adam Hochschild's "Bury the Chains," about the drive to abolish slavery in the British Empire; Alan Burdick's "Out of Eden," an inquiry into the new science that studies how the spread of non-native species affects ecosystems; and Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn's intensely reported 9/11 narrative, "102 Minutes."

William T. Vollmann was a surprise winner in the fiction category for his novel of Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union, "Europe Central." Pre-ceremony speculation had focused on E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel, "The March."

"I thought I would lose, so I didn't prepare a speech," said Vollmann, an intense and prolific novelist and journalist who has never been able to shake a reputation as a cult writer.

He went on to describe the genesis of his 800-page book, which a Washington Post reviewer described as "a grimly magnificent dramatization of the impossible moral choices forced on individuals by those totalitarian regimes."

In elementary school, Vollmann had seen "a film of burned corpses being pulled out of ovens." Later, understanding that he himself was partly German, he began "to read myself into this horrible event," questioning how anyone could have done it, and whether he could have done it himself.

The other fiction finalists were Mary Gaitskill for "Veronica," Rene Steinke for "Holy Skirts" and Christopher Sorrentino for "Trance."

The award for young people's literature went to "The Penderwicks," a lighthearted debut novel by Jeanne Birdsall. In her acceptance speech, Birdsall quoted a young fan who said: "This book is about being a good listener even if you're a grown-up."

The poetry award went to W.S. Merwin for "Migration: New and Selected Poems." This year's National Book Award nomination was the eighth for Merwin, who could not attend the ceremony.

At a cocktail reception earlier in the evening, the publishing clan gathered and chatted. There was the usual concern about the place of books in American culture, the usual complaint about shorter and shorter attention spans.

A clutch of poets were communing by themselves along one wall. What makes poetry different, they were asked?

"More with less," said Brendan Galvin, a finalist for "Habitat: New and Selected Poems, 1965-2005." He gestured as if outlining the shape of a poem. "The way a sentence unfolds down a page -- it's one of the great mysteries of civilization."

Didion arrived with her Knopf editor, Shelley Wanger, just as the guests were being urged to take their seats for dinner. Asked about her chances, she raised both arms in the air and said, "You never know." Photographers converged. A minute later, nonfiction finalist Hochschild walked by and, in response to the same question, made exactly the same arms-in-the-air gesture.

Then he said: "I think I'd put my money on Joan Didion."

The evening's master of ceremonies, Garrison Keillor, got a laugh by describing the experience, presumably shared by many, of leafing through a Harry Potter book at one's local Barnes & Noble and thinking: "I could have written that. Why didn't I?" He got another laugh, perhaps more nervous, when he suggested that the folks giving the night's awards had been "chastened" by criticism of last year's fiction finalists, who were, to put it mildly, not household names.

But Keillor also poked fun at the Quill awards, a newly launched National Book Awards competitor seemingly designed to ensure that the most marketable books get to slap prize labels on their covers.

"Not a great name for a prize," Keillor said. "Makes you think of porcupines."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and founder of San Francisco's celebrated City Lights Bookstore, accepted the National Book Foundation's first Literarian award, for outstanding service to the American literary community. Eighty-two-year-old literary lion Norman Mailer accepted a lifetime achievement medal from the foundation.

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison introduced Mailer, praising him despite what she called his "almost cosmic obtuseness regarding women." When he recovered from this, Mailer deplored the fact that the serious novel seems to be "an endangered species."

"Whose sense of compassion has not been deepened by living in Tolstoy's novels?" he asked.

Joan Didion thanked the editors at Knopf who accepted her idea for a deeply personal book.