The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2015 Longlist

Samuel Johnson Prize longlist

The longlist for this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction was announced today. The twelve books are:

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate
Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance by Robert Gildea
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane
The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World by Oliver Morton
Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev
They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper by Bruce Robinson
The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World by Laurence Scott
Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently by Steve Silberman
The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Tim Snyder
This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian

The Samuel Johnson Prize is one of the more established and prestigious book awards for non-fiction but it still receives relatively little coverage compared to the majority of prizes for fiction. However, I think the landscape for non-fiction has changed a lot recently and I have been taking more of an interest in it. Speaking at the Hay Festival this year, the chair of the Prize Stuart Profitt said he believed that we are currently in a “golden age” of non-fiction. There seems to be an increasing focus on books for “general” readers who want to read engaging accounts about people, places, ideas and events which are not heavily academic but are infinitely more insightful and intelligently written than C-list celebrity autobiographies at the other end of the spectrum. I think this can only be a good thing.

The longlist itself inevitably covers a wide range of genres and topics including literary biography, history, politics, travel, nature and health with the panel commenting that “There’s something for everybody here, whatever your tastes”. On the other hand, compared to last year’s selection, there is considerably less diversity among this year’s authors as eleven out of the twelve longlisted writers are male.Home

Overall, the panel have said they are looking for books that “could only have been written today, but prompts as much thought about tomorrow as yesterday”. Having taken a module about post-Soviet Russia at university, one of the books on the longlist I am most interested in reading is ‘Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia’ by Peter Pomerantsev. ‘The Four-Dimensional Human’ by Laurence Scott about the existential impact of technology and the internet also appears to be an original and ambitious take on a widely-discussed debate.

Although some of the titles I’ve read in recent months are not eligible for this year’s prize, I had hoped to see Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker on the list. More meditative than memoir, it explores an interesting theme in an accessible and unique way much like last year’s winner H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  I’m looking forward to finding out if this year’s titles manage to achieve the same thing.

The shortlist will be announced on 11th October followed by the winner on 2nd November. Have you read any of the longlisted books? Who do you want to win the Prize?

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2015 Longlist

  1. I don’t know if it’s my age or the quality of the books being published at the moment, but I am increasingly interested in non-fiction. I haven’t read any from this list, but it looks like a good selection. I look forward to comparing notes on a few of them in the future.

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  2. It’s good to read about what is happening in the non-fiction world – not something I often get round to exploring, unless it is art or economics books.

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  3. This is a good post. I haven’t yet read any of the books, but because non-fiction still does not get the exposure that fiction does most of these books are completely new to me. I will be adding the Ted Hughes biography and the book about Jack The Ripper to my To Be Read list and that is only the start! Thanks for bringing this list to my attention.

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  4. I completely agree that this is a golden age for non-fiction. If anything, I’m actually enjoying non-fiction more than fiction these days. Finally authors seem to have realised that if they want to attract general non-academic readers they need to write well and avoid jargon. I haven’t read any of these yet, but will check them out – thanks for listing them!

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  5. I’ve got Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Adventures In Modern Russia, and this should prompt me to read it – it’s a place I have a fascination with, since I studied the Russian Revolution as part of my History course. So I do have a weakness for books on Russia. The Ted Hughes also appeals. I really should make more of an effort to read more non-fiction; my Dad reads nothing but, like many older men (it’s pretty much all history, too!)

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    • Yes, I think Pomerantsev’s book will be top of my list too – will be interesting to see which books are shortlisted. My Dad is the same – he mostly reads non-fiction and when he does read fiction, it’s usually something like John Buchan or Evelyn Waugh!

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  6. I haven’t read any of these but I do have my eye on Neurotribes, The Four-Dimensional Human and The Planet Remade, and I also want to read Skyfaring. I love non-fiction and feel I read more of it than most people I hang out with, but I tend to pick it up in paperback / from charity shops, so a few years after the book has come out.

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  7. Tks for the post. I knew nothing about this prize as I mostly read fiction. Still amazed that Robinson’s “Lila” did not make Man Booker short list.

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  8. I’d like to read the Russian book but doubt it will make its way into our South African bookstores. But – hey! – you never know!

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  9. The Cue Card

    I’ve read a couple things on Tim Snyder’s book “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” which sounds like it’s thought-provoking. I wonder if it will win?

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  10. I read all and everything by Robert MacFarlane. Loved Landmarks and read the saddest paragraph I have recently encountered in The Word-Hoard: all about the words that are being left out of the Junior Oxford Dictionary which include “acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup. catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voicemail”
    I posted on this book and others on 9th May 2015 Word hoard and ancient pathways

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  11. I’m reading Neurotribes at the moment (my daughter has autism), and it is superb. Extremely readable, overall positive and humane.

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