FT/Goldman Sachs Book Awards Celebrate Reading in a Digital Age

Reading is fundamental -- regardless of the platform.

That was the message delivered by Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, during a rousing keynote speech at the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs (GS) Business Book of the Year Awards ceremony at the Pierre Hotel in New York City Wednesday night.

Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, by Raghuram G. Rajan, took home the top award for 2010 amid stiff competition from top writers including Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System -- and Themselves; and David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World.

In his acceptance speech, Rajan, who is Eric J. Gleacher Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, paid homage to his home institution. "My years at Chicago made me who I am," he said. "Everyone thinks that Chicago is all about free markets, and it is, but it's also about ideas."

In his book, Rajan shows how "the individual choices that collectively brought about the economic meltdown -- made by bankers, government officials, and ordinary homeowners -- were rational responses to a flawed global financial order in which the incentives to take on risk are incredibly out of step with the dangers those risks pose," according to Princeton University Press, the publisher. (Sound familiar?)

False Debate

"Reports of the demise of the book have been greatly exaggerated," Gregorian said in his keynote speech, paraphrasing Mark Twain. He delivered a rebuke of media pundit Jeff Jarvis, who famously said that "print is where books go to die."

In his speech, Gregorian sought to transcend the print vs. digital debate that has been raging for years in technology and media circles. Such a dichotomy represents a false choice, Gregorian said.

"Technology is not our adversary," said Gregorian, who served as president of Brown University from 1989 to 1997. "It's not about platforms but about content. A book is still a book even if it is an e-book."

Far from undermining books, he argued, technology can open the joys of literature to a new, younger generation of readers more accustomed to getting content in purely digital form. That said, we must not view technology as the savior of publishing or journalism, both previously print-focused businesses undergoing wrenching changes thanks to the Internet revolution.

A Nation of Ptolemys

"Technology is not a universal panacea," Gregorian said. "We still have to read, and we still have to think." Most of all he said, we have to remember that books are about ideas, in whatever form we consume them. We must avoid fetishizing technology and remember that what's important is knowledge, community and indeed humanity. After all, Gregorian quipped, "God did not create life out of two computers."

Gregorian, who served as president of the New York Public Library from 1981 to 1989, delivered a impassioned tribute to the role of libraries in our culture. Even in an age in which Google (GOOG) Books has digitized millions of books and made them available online, the idea of the library must remain central to our understanding of community and the body politic. Technology has the power to make a full library available to each citizen, he said.

"We each can now have our own personal library of Alexandria," Gregorian said, referring to the famous center of knowledge that was a wonder of the Classical world. "We can each be a modern-day Ptolemy," Gregorian said, citing the famous ancient scholar whose name is synonymous with knowledge, learning and the search for truth.

One Notable Recusee

Inevitably, an evening celebrating the best business books of the year, co-sponsored by giant investment bank Goldman Sachs, would create some amusing moments. Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who co-hosted the event along with Financial Times Editor Lionel Barber made some self-deprecating remarks during his introductory speech.

Blankfein recused himself from judging the nominees because, he said to somewhat nervous chuckles, "I'm in the index of all the nominees." (That's actually false. He does not appear in The Facebook Effect.) "We work hard," Goldman's CEO said, "to provide [the nominees] with as much material as possible."

Referring to the Financial Times, Blankfein took a good-natured shot at the respected global daily newspaper, which has done such great work exploring the role of Goldman and the other big banks in the financial crisis and economic meltdown. "It's our favorite source of fiction," Blankfein joked.

Of the 150 attendees at the event -- including many of New York City's business and media leaders -- only Blankfein himself was off-limits to reporters' questions.