"I was so pleased to see Robert Caro nominated this year because he brings the total number of nominated authors I've actually heard of to two," Martin said Wednesday night, singling out the winner of the non-fiction prize.
Awards judges Wednesday honored both established and emerging authors, citing Caro for "Master of the Senate," the third volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, and Julia Glass for her debut novel, "Three Junes." None of the other fiction nominees had written more than two works of fiction.
Other prizes went to Nancy Farmer, who won in the young people's literature category for "The House of the Scorpion," and to poet Ruth Stone, who turned 87 this year, for her collection "In the Next Galaxy."
"I think you probably gave it to me because I'm old," Stone said with a laugh.
Glass, a mother of two, was in tears as she confided to the audience that she hadn't felt this emotional since "my newborn baby sons were put in my arms - only a whole lot of people weren't watching."
"Three Junes," a three-part family drama, did have some following even before Wednesday. It was the September pick for the "Good Morning America" book club. Another finalist, Adam Haslett's "You Are Not a Stranger Here," was a "Today" show book club selection.
Caro, 67, has been working on his Johnson series since the mid-1970s and has yet to reach the presidential years, the heart of a planned fourth and final volume. Caro's first Johnson book, "The Path to Power," was a National Book Award finalist in 1983.
Caro has been criticized by supporters of the late president for portraying him as little more than crude and ruthless. But few such complaints were heard about "Master of the Senate," which follows Johnson's incredible rise from newly elected senator in the late 1940s to majority leader by 1954.
Caro had insisted from the beginning that he considered Johnson a creature of both ambition and benevolence and "Master of the Senate" emphasized his legislative genius in getting Congress, in 1957, to pass the first civil rights bill of the 20th century.
"I consider each of my ... books as studies in political power, how it is acquired, how it is used," Caro said in a statement read by Sonny Mehta, president of Alfred A. Knopf, the author's longtime publishing house. "If you care about political power, every day with LBJ is an eye-opening sort of day."
Caro attended a pre-ceremony reception but left before his award was announced when his wife, Ina, became ill.
Before the ceremony, Caro observed that his critics were now well outnumbered by the number of Johnson associates "asking me to interview them." His book was a best seller for months, despite running more than 1,000 pages.
Philip Roth, a two-time winner for "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Sabbath's Theater," received an honorary medal for lifetime achievement. He was introduced by Martin, who read a long list of the author's previous literary prizes.
"However, that doesn't impress me," Martin joked. "Where's his Golden Globe? ... If he's so great, where's his hit sitcom, 'Philip'"?
Winners received $10,000 and finalists $1,000. The awards are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization that runs educational outreach programs.
Written By HILLEL ITALIE