NEW YORK -- Joan Didion, whose memoir ''The Year of Magical Thinking" is quickly becoming a classic portrait of grief, won the National Book Award for nonfiction last night.
''There's hardly anything I can say about this except thank you," said Didion, who wrote her acclaimed bestseller about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the illness of her daughter, Quintana Roo.
Jeanne Birdsall of Northampton won in young people's literature for her debut novel, ''The Penderwicks," which tells of four sisters and their widowed father.
Birdsall quoted from a letter from a young fan: ''This book is about being a good listener, even if you're a grown-up."
In a minor surprise, William T. Vollmann won the fiction prize for ''Europe Central," an 800-page novel about Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. E.L. Doctorow's ''The March" and Mary Gaitskill's ''Veronica" had been regarded as the leading contenders, even by Vollmann.
W.S. Merwin won the poetry prize for ''Migration." Wellesley College professor Frank Bidart (''Star Dust: Poems") and Truro's Brendan Galvin (''Habitat: New and Selected Poems, 1965-2005") were nominated.
Leo Damrosch, a professor of literature at Harvard, was a nonfiction nominee for ''Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius."
The awards, now in their 56th year, pay $10,000 to each winner. Garrison Keillor hosted and honorary medals went to Norman Mailer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Mailer was introduced by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who praised him extensively but couldn't help pointing out his ''almost comic obtuseness about women." The 82-year-old Mailer, recovering from heart surgery, responded: ''I'm obtuse about women, but also wary of them."
David Mehegan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.