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.
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?