Canada’s $75,000 Cundill Shortlist: Echoes of Today’s Geo-Political Challenges

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The three finalists named for the richest book prize for English-language nonfiction focused on ‘big issues’ all of which address challenges dogging many societies today.

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Winner To Be Announced November 16

The richest award in nonfiction for a single work in English, the Montreal-based Cundill History Prize, has announced its three-title shortlist today (October 26) as a kind of triangulation of contemporary geo-political concerns.

As Publishing Perspectives has reported, the prize-winning title of the year will be named at a gala event in Montreal on November 16. All three authors of the shortlisted books are to be present.

The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press) is Austrian-born historian Walter Scheidel’s take on why, according to its publisher, inequality “is unlikely to go away.” It’s in Scheidel’s work that one of the most chilling concepts of social evolution is proposed: “Inequality never dies peacefully,” we read in promotional material for the book. “Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.”

The second of three shortlisted titles chosen by jury chair Margaret MacMillan and her colleagues is Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (Penguin/Allen Lane) can’t help but make us think of UN refugee camps in South Sudan, repression of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the international debate arond immigration and refugees.

And the third, Vietnam: A New History by Christopher Goscha (Basic Books) is a book that takes a far more extensive look at the Southeast Asian nation than most of us know from the country’s modern history. The story of Vietnam, is one of multilayered ethnic diversity, which the publisher says, “is the legacy of centuries of imperial collisions and ever-shifting political configurations.”

The Cundill’s shortlisted trio of titles place a Canadian author (Goscha), a British writer (Beer) and the US-based Austrian Scheidel in contention. While one will win the US$75,000 prize, the two runners-up will each receive $10,000.

MacMillan and her fellow jurors began with a record 300 submissions for the prize, and they’ve supplied commentary on each of the shortlisted works.

  • Juror Jeffrey Simpson, for example, offers a remark on the Scheidel The Great Leveler: “If you are someone who wants more equality in your society, you’re going to
    hate this book. Walter Scheidel has backed up a very controversial thesis with an enormous amount of economic data. The Great Leveler is going to be quite unpopular in certain circles, but it is a book that we think you have to grapple with, even if you don’t agree.”
  • Juror Roy Foster comments on the Goscha book: “Christopher Gosha’s Vietnam was a revelation to me. This is a book that is written from an inside perspective, from somebody who has immersed himself in the sources, learned the languages, studied the cultures and constructed the story of a country, the story of individuals and
    people, often tragically, often inspiringly.”
  • And Juror Amanda Foreman writes about the Siberian study: “The House of the Dead is absolutely marvelous, because it presents a 360-degree view of history. Daniel Beer has a universality of approach that is both innovative and really important. This is the story of an immense tragedy over hundreds of years. It is a huge canvas, and to be able to bring in individual stories, that sense of what it is to be human, is really a triumph.”

In a prepared statement, MacMillan is quoted, saying, “The three finalists for the 2017 Cundill History Prize are extraordinary works of history: beautifully crafted, well-researched, and ambitious. They tackle big issues and help us to know ourselves and our world better.

“We live in complicated times and the work of historians such as these provides us with the necessary background, understanding and insights to enable us to formulate the sorts of questions we ought to be asking.”

Juror Rana Mitter point for the announcement is about a universality inherent in these selections: “One of the things that is most notable about this
shortlist,” he says, “is how extensive, how global the questions that it deals with are. These studies speak to something even beyond the particular subjects that they look at.”

The 10th anniversary iteration of the award has been, as in the past, administered by McGill University in Montreal where the eponymous F. Peter Cundill (1938-2011) established the prize, which is based at the Cundill Foundation.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.

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