By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Health and the Human Experience’
One of the most interestingly specialized literature awards programs of each year is the Wellcome Book Prize, which honors titles “that illuminate our encounters with health, medicine, and illness.”
For those unfamiliar with it, the Wellcome Collection in London—named for its patron Henry Wellcome—is a museum and library focused on science and medicine. With its slogan about being a place “for the incurably curious,” the organization is currently featuring, for example, exhibitions including the digital article “The Story of Yoga,” “Ayurvedic Man: Encounters With Indian Medicine,” and “Somewhere In Between,” which features the work of artists Martina Amati, Daria Martin, Maria McKinney, and John Walter, in collaboration with scientists.
The book prize from Wellcome carries a £30,000 purse (US$42,100) and is scheduled to be conferred on it winner on April 30 at the Wellcome Collection in London’s Euston Road.
This award can be lost amid so many at this time of year, of course, especially in the UK, rich in prize programs announcing batteries of categories at a time.
The Wellcome program has just one prize and it has only six shortlisted titles, a restrained program compared to many others. This year’s books, announced today (March 19), include four nonfiction works, one memoir, and a novel, all, as press materials tell us, “connected by our complex relationship with mortality.”
Four of this year’s shortlisted books are debuts, while five of the six are by women. Two authors nominated here are American, while two are from the UK. The shortlisted books are:
- Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (Nigeria) Canongate Books. Called by jurors “a remarkable and turbulent novel that sweeps the reader into the heartbreak of infertility and societal expectation.”
- The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris (USA) Allen Lane, Penguin Press. Described by the jury as “A gruesome yet spellbinding account of how Joseph Lister transformed medicine,” with a cover art treatment of Thomas Eakins’ 1889 The Agnew Clinic.
- With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix (UK) William Collins, HarperCollins. Jurors commend the author’s “unparalleled knowledge of palliative care, with compassion and with an urgency to make dying part of our lives.”
- To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell (Ireland) Granta Books. The book is described by the jury’s statement as “deftly skewering those who think the answer to humanity’s frailty is to leave it behind, in a book which itself manages to be simultaneously hilarious, touching and utterly humane.”
- Mayhem: A Memoir by Sigrid Rausing (UK/Sweden) Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books. Jurors praise this book as “powerful and searing without ever feeling exploitative.” Rausing’s writing, they say, “is spare and honest, asking questions that many would be too frightened to.”
- The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman (USA/Canada) Doubleday, Transworld. The jury in its rationale says, “Wadman’s brilliantly researched book unfolds like a thriller, but asks some tough ethical questions along the way.”
‘Urgent Public Conversation’
In making a statement for the press, jury chief Edmund de Waal is quoted, saying, “The demand of judging the Wellcome Book Prize is to find books that have to be read, books to press into people’s hands, books that start debates or deepen them, that move us profoundly, surprise and delight and perplex us, that bring the worlds of medicine and health into urgent public conversation: books that show us what it is to be human. These are six powerful books to read and share.”
And Kirty Topiwala, who is the publisher for the Wellcome Collection, is quoted, saying, “Year on year this genre continues to excel.
“These six exceptional books brilliantly demonstrate the variety, style and power of contemporary writing engaged with health and the human experience.”
Past winners of the Wellcome Book Prize give a good picture of what this specialized award is about. They include:
- Maylis de Kerangal (author) and Jessica Moore (translator) for Mend the Living in 2017
- Suzanne O’Sullivan for It’s All in Your Head in 2016
- Marion Coutts for The Iceberg in 2015
- Andrew Solomon for Far from the Tree in 2014
- Thomas Wright for Circulation in 2012
- Alice LaPlante for Turn of Mind in 2011
- Rebecca Skloot for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010
- Andrea Gillies for Keeper: Living with Nancy, a Journey Into Alzheimer’s in 2009
The parent company of the Wellcome Collection is the international charitable foundation Wellcome, also based in London, which makes the refreshing point in its press materials that it’s both politically and financially independent. The charity supports initiatives, it says, in areas including biomedical sciences, population health, product development and applied research, humanities and social science, and public engagement and creative industries.
More from Publishing Perspectives on book and publishing awards is here.