Canada’s $75,000 Cundill Prize 2018 Jurors: Five Historians in Search of Contemporary Insights

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The five-person jury of history experts discuss why history writing is important and how they will choose this year’s winner of the Cundill History Prize.

Mark Gilbert of Johns Hopkins’ Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies chairs this year’s jury for the Cundill History Prize, the world’s richest in nonfiction English awards. Image: Cundill Prize

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

More Than 400 Titles Submitted, A Record

In its 11th year, the Cundill History Prize, based at McGill University in Montreal, is riding on a strong 10th anniversary prize cycle which, in 2017 saw a re-energized program and a refreshed presence on the international literature awards scene.

The prize honors history writing which, according to the prize’s website, “embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal.”

As Publishing Perspectives reported last November, UK historian Daniel Beer won the 2017 prize for his The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars from Penguin Random House.

The Cundill program today (June 15) is naming its five-person jury for the 2018 award, which will be presented at a gala ceremony in Québec on November 15. A series of events programmed around the event will include McGill’s annual Cundill lecture, which Beer will deliver as last year’s winner.

If anything, this leading award in history is gaining in social importance annually, as world political developments intensify and send many searching for the lessons of earlier eras.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning juror Caroline Elkins says, “The context of our current political times demands that we, as historians, do not lose sight of the conventions of our profession while, at the same time, remain ever vigilant in expressing our ideas and arguments in ways that extend well beyond the proverbial ivory tower.” She’s describing a key criterion of the Cundill ethos: a book chosen for this rarified honor must be something readable and comprehensible for the consumer readership at large and not simply an arcanum that informs the Academy.

“History, done well, helps us grasp the rich complexity of human civilizations. Done badly, it underpins dogmatism, prejudice, and oppression. History matters.”Mark Gilbert

On the run up to the November awards, a shortlist will be announced on September 25 at Canada House in London. And in October, the jurors will narrow their selections to three finalists.

The winner will be awarded US75,000—said by organizers to be the largest prize purse for nonfiction in English. Each of the two runners-up will receive US$10,000.

Beer, in a prepared comment, has mentioned the funding of the prize, saying, “Winning the Cundill History Prize has been a game-changing experience. The prize has dramatically raised the profile of The House of the Dead and of my wider work on Russian history both inside and outside the academy.

“The generosity of the award is also helping to support my new research project on the terrorist campaign to assassinate Alexander II in 1881.”

As it turns out, the enhanced visibility and reputational awareness the prize attracted in 2017 seems to have had a good effect on submissions for 2018, and this after last year’s submissions doubled all previous entries, running to some 330 titles.

This year, the Cundill is reporting a 25-percent increase in the number of titles submitted by trade and university publishers. More than 400 books put into contention reflect, according to Cundill Prize officials, a kind of golden era in history writing, and authors are represented in this initial outsized submission portfolio from Canada, the USA, the UK, China, France, Germany, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Russia.

One of the challenges of handling the job of sorting through such a plethora of deeply researched work, of course, is that the range of subjects, historical eras, and levels of nuance is enormous. What many authors whose work is submitted will find gratifying is the cohort of strong books—including one Pulitzer Prize winner—written by the jurors, themselves.

Books by members of the 2018 Cundill History Prize jury

Newly Announced 2018 Cundill History Prize Jurors

Mark Gilbert

Mark Gilbert, professor of history and international studies at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Gilbert is quoted in the prize program’s announcement materials overnight, setting the tone of his jury’s work ahead with a beautiful phrase that some will recognize as being attributed to the British writer Leslie Poles Hartley’s 1953 The Go-Between:

“The task of a historian,” Gilbert says, “is to make that other country come to life.

“History, done well, helps us grasp the rich complexity of human civilizations throughout the ages and encourages tolerance, comprehension for diversity, and insight into the greatest achievements of human minds. Done badly, it underpins dogmatism, prejudice, and oppression. History matters.

The Cundill History Prize rewards books that combine serious scholarship with an appeal to the general reader. Books that open minds.

“The selection process will be a rigorous and balanced appraisal of the books submitted and we expect that choosing the shortlist and winner will be both enriching and challenging.”

Carol Berkin

Carol Berkin, presidential professor of history, emerita, of Baruch College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Berkin’s concentrations include women’s history and the American revolution, the creation of the US Constitution, and the politics of the early republic. Her most recent title is A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (Basic Books, 2017), and she’s on the scholars board of the New York Historical Society’s Center for the Study of American Women.

“This is an exciting moment in our scholarship,” says Berkin, in a short statement, “as historians continue to reconstruct the past in ever-greater complexity and inclusivity. New areas of research are adding depth and nuance to our understanding and new tools of analysis are giving voice to those we once thought would remain silent observers rather than active participants in shaping their moment.

“All this promises a better understanding of the events, the individual lives, and the collective movements that are central to the historical enterprise.”

Caroline Elkins

Caroline Elkins, professor of history and of African and African-American studies at Harvard, visiting professor at Harvard Business School, affiliated professor at Harvard Law School, and founding director of Harvard’s Center for African Studies

Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya(Henry Holt) won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2006. Her research centers on empire and violence with a particular focus on Africa and various regions of the former British Empire including the Middle East.

“It is a singular honor to serve on a panel of such distinguished jurors for the most significant prize awarded in the field of historical research and writing,” Elkins says in her statement for the Cundill’s announcement.

“We shall bring a range of expertise and robust knowledge to bear as we read and evaluate deeply researched historical works that integrate analytical and methodological rigor with prose that, at once, engage and provoke readers.

“The context of our current political times demands that we, as historians, do not lose sight of the conventions of our profession while, at the same time, remain ever vigilant in expressing our ideas and arguments in ways that extend well beyond the proverbial ivory tower. I am humbled by our task to read some of the most important recent works of history and, together, decide on which ones will stand alongside the towering collection of previous Cundill winners.”

Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan, professor of global history at Oxford University, where he is founding director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and senior research fellow at Worcester College

Frankopan’s most recent book is The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Bloomsbury) is a New York Times bestseller that Berliner Zeitung‘s review called “not just the most important history book in years, but the most important in decades.” Frankopan has served as a Stanley J. Seeger visiting fellow in Hellenic studies at Princeton; a Scaliger visiting professor at Leiden; and a presidential scholar at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

“History writing is going through something of a golden age at the moment,” Frankopan says, “with an astonishing range of subjects being tackled by writers from many different backgrounds–often with dazzling results.

“Picking the brightest diamond among these jewels will not be easy.

“But I cannot think of a lovelier thing to do than having the chance to read, think, and talk about what makes good history—and to decide which the very best book published in the last year has been.

Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson, a journalist, returns to the jury from last year and previous iterations

The author of seven books, most recently Chronic Condition: Why Canada’s Health Care System Needs To Be Dragged Into The 21 Century (Allen Lane), Simpson has won all three of Canada’s leading literary prizes–the Governor-General’s award for nonfiction book writing; the National Magazine Award for political writing; and the National Newspaper Award for column writing.

“Having had the honor to serve on previous Cundill History Prize juries, I can attest to the superb nature of the submissions, the excitement of reading the best history in the English language—and the difficulty of choosing the winner from among so many excellent books. It’s going to be another terrific intellectual ride.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Cundill History Prize is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.