Non-fiction prize casts a wide net

The shortlist for the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction was been announced on Friday 5 October and it’s an impressively mixed bag.

The nominated books will are as varied in location as they are in subject matter. They will take you up Everest, across UK on foot, and down into the slums of Mumbai. They look at humanity from the darkest moments of Franco’s reign in Spain, to the innovation of the man who invented modern theatre, and go further into a long difficult look at mankind’s history of violence and what we can expect from it today.

David Willetts, the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science and chair of the judging panel, said the prize was looking for significant books which would “change our view of the world” and “make a lasting contribution to their genres”.

‘Their broad range of subject matter reflects the diversity of English-language non-fiction, and has the potential to inspire readers of all interests. It was partly deliberate to have such a wide range. Even though quality is so important all of the judges have still tried to show a range, from magisterial science from Steven Pinker, to Macfarlane’s extraordinary response to the natural world.”

I’m most excited getting my hands on Steven Pinker’s history of violence and humanity, The Better Angels of our Nature. Pinker, who is the author of the excellent “The Language Instinct” and “Blank Slate“, argues that humankind is becoming progressively less violent and that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people. And although I’ve loved reading his previous books I completely forgot to pick Better Angels up, so the announcement of the prize was a timely reminder to get my hands on a copy.

I’ll probably try to get my hands on a copy of all six books short-listed, which is at least one of the good results of having a non-fiction prize this prestigious and well publicised. As I have said (okay, whinged before) non-fiction is often left in the cold when it comes to awards and prizes, so it’s good to see it rewarded. And even better when the net is cast this wide, pulling in so many excellent and diverse books.

The full shortlist is:

The award is worth £20,000 (approximately $30,000AUD) to the winner and aims to reward the best of English language non-fiction. It is open to authors of all non-fiction books in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography autobiography and the arts. The winner will be announced on 12 November.