Chair of judges Evan Davis cheers internationally various ‘Nazi-free’ longlist
With books that span the globe from the Arctic to North Korea, and two studies of roads and road trips, this year’s Samuel Johnson prize longlist is infused with wanderlust. The 19-strong list for the £20,000 non-fiction prize has moved away from the traditional biography and science-dominated lists of previous years to take on a more international perspective.
Country Driving by Peter Hessler follows the New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent on epic trips along China’s burgeoning highway system, while Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick tells the stories of defectors from the impenetrable fortress state of North Korea. Nine Lives by William Dalrymple sees the author take a spiritual journey across India, sharing the voices of the multitude of characters he meets along the way, and Sara Wheeler’s The Magnetic North collects the lore, histories, and picaresque characters of the Arctic. Two memoirs of childhood, When Skateboards Will Be Free by Said Sayrafiezadeh, and Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, describe growing up in a Socialist Workers Party-obsessed Iranian-American family, and Kenya under British rule.
The global range of the longlist has particularly pleased the chair of judges, Evan Davis, the economist, journalist and BBC presenter.
“I like the fact that we have a bit of Africa, a bit of Asia, a bit of Iranian-North America and the usual Europe and even the Arctic as well,” he said. “It’s a very international list. I also like it because there are no Nazis and no people fighting the Nazis. When you look at lists of non-fiction in the UK you see the preoccupation we have with the second world war and the events leading up to it. It wasn’t a deliberate move; we did have a number of books entered on that theme. But they didn’t make the longlist and I personally felt a little pleased with that. It felt like a refreshingly different longlist for that reason.”
The second world war gets a look-in with The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Frances Stonor Saunders but, says Davis “it’s not really in the same mould as books about the fight against the Nazis. It’s more about insanity and its treatment in the first half of the 20th century”.
Two science books made the longlist: Catching Fire: How Cooking made us Human by Richard Wrangham, and The Music Instinct by Philip Ball, an analysis of how we listen to sounds. Last year’s list had been dominated by science and Davis expressed his disappointment that there had not been a higher proportion of popular science works this year.
“I personally had slightly hoped that we might have a bit more science, and in particular, books about the very ‘now’ study of the brain. We were all a little surprised that not that many were submitted. In the sacrifice to high level of wordly books, some of the cost has been on the science side, and the traditional biography”.
A Gambling Man by Jenny Uglow, a history of the Restoration monarch Charles II, is arguably the only heavyweight biography on a list that tends to be dominated by such studies. “As a panel of judges we put less store in the big biography that was a comprehensive account of somebody’s life, the comprehensive record of their existence, than some judging panels,” Davis explained. “We put a little more weight in the slightly quirkier personal.” That approach resulted in longlistings for On Roads, a study of the British road system by Joe Moran, The Secret Lives of Buildings by Edward Hollis, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos, about the “wow factor” of maths, and Blood Knots by Luke Jennings, which is both a chronicle of angling and a coming-of-age tale.
However, there was also room on the list for David Kynaston’s highly regarded social history, Family Britain 1951–1957; and a doorstopper account of the credit crisis, Too Big to Fail: Inside the Battle to Save Wall Street by Andrew Ross Sorkin
Davis is joined on the judging panel by novelist and journalist for the Financial Times, Jan Dalley, executive editor of the Times Daniel Finkelstein, editor of the New Scientist Roger Highfield, and author and best-selling historian Stella Tillyard.
The shortlist will be announced in late May and the winner in July. Last year’s prize was won by Philip Hoare’s Leviathan, a very personal study of whales, with previous winners including Kate Summerscale, Antony Beevor and Jonathan Coe.
The longlist in full
The Music Instinct by Philip Ball (Random House – The Bodley Head)
Alex’s Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand (Atlantic Books)
Making Haste from Babylon by Nick Bunker (Random House – The Bodley Head)
Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (Granta)
Country Driving by Peter Hessler (Canongate Press)
The Secret Lives of Buildings by Edward Hollis (Portobello Books)
Blood Knots by Luke Jennings (Atlantic Books)
Family Britain 1951–1957 by David Kynaston (Bloomsbury Publishing)
On Roads by Joe Moran (Profile Books)
When Skateboards Will Be Free by Said Sayrafiezadeh (Penguin – Hamish Hamilton)
Too Big to Fail: Inside the Battle to Save Wall Street by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Penguin – Allen Lane)
Burying the Bones by Hilary Spurling (Profile Books)
The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Frances Stonor Saunders (Faber and Faber)
A Gambling Man by Jenny Uglow (Faber and Faber)
Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (Random House – Harvill Secker)
The Magnetic North by Sara Wheeler (Random House – Jonathan Cape)
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham (Profile Books)