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The BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction: the contenders

Ben Macintyre, chairman of the judging panel, assesses the books vying for a top literary prize logo
Published: Wednesday, 6th July 2011 at 4:02 pm

Truth is stranger than fiction. It is also, in many cases, a lot more interesting: witness the staggering array of non-fiction titles submitted for the Samuel Johnson Prize this year.


As judges we had to consider more books than ever before – 208 in all – covering the widest range of subject matter. Winnowing down the contenders to a longlist of 18 was hard enough; cutting that down to six finalists was even harder.

How far the definition of non-fiction has expanded. Alongside the traditional, scholarly and fascinating lives of the great and good (and bad) in the books submitted, there were also an extraordinary number of what might be called cross-genre works, combining history, travel, anthropology, art, memoir, science, psychology, polemic and humour.

Each of the six books that made it onto the shortlist combines profound inquiry with superb writing, but above all each is highly original, inviting the reader to look at the world in a strikingly new and different way. Choosing a winner will be the most demanding task of all.

Samuel Johnson himself once observed that “books, like friends, should be few and well chosen”. The prize judges have had to choose just a few books from the vast trove of non-fiction published over the past year. We invite you to make the acquaintance of these great books, in the certainty that they will become your friends.

Bismarck: A Life tells the amazing story of the 19th-century political genius and deeply flawed man who forged Germany, but never ruled it. Jonathan Steinberg reveals the character contours of this extraordinary, contradictory man, the “Iron Chancellor”, as never before: witty, malicious, generous, destructive, offensive and brilliant. (Jonathan Steinberg, Oxford University Press)

Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and his vivid world burst from the pages of this breathtaking masterpiece of biography. Here are the rough streets of Milan and Rome, frequented by an artist of pure inspiration and extreme habits, who lived in a world of whores and brawls, killed a rival in a fight, escaped from prison, and died at 38, leaving paintings that transformed art. (Andrew Graham-Dixon, Allen Lane)

Mao’s Great Famine ensures that no one will think of Mao Tse-tung’s rule over Communist China in the same way. Frank Dikötter had access to hitherto closed party archives, and his hauntingly beautiful prose exposes in meticulous detail the scale of the devastation wrought by Mao’s effort to force China into superpower status in the disastrous experiment known as the Great Leap Forward. (Frank Dikötter, Bloomsbury)

The Rational Optimist offers a refreshing, incisive, superbly argued counterattack on the doom-mongers and pessimists. The majority of the world, Matt Ridley insists, is better fed and housed, healthier and happier, than ever before, and problems will be solved as they always have been: by the free, fertile, promiscuous mixture of human ideas. (Matt Ridley, Fourth Estate)

Reprobates: the Cavaliers of the English Civil War is as swaggering and colourful as its subject: the cavalier, with his high boots, plumed hat and debonair ways, is not only a defining symbol of the English Civil War, but remains a part of the language. John Stubbs explores the poets, wits and womanisers, the gamblers, rakes and conspirators of King Charles’ court, to create not just a picture of the “roaring boys”, but an entire history of that tumultuous age. (John Stubbs, Viking)


Liberty’s Exiles Maya Jasanoff has created a history of the loyalist diaspora, the American losers in the Revolutionary War, the thousands of people, white, black and Indian, whose loyalty to the crown compelled them to leave the country that would become the United States, and seek refuge in other parts of the British empire. It’s a lyrical account of a group whose dispersal and effect on the wider world were profound. (Maya Jasanoff, HarperPress)


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