Canada’s Cundill Prize Jurors: History, Urgency, Trump

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‘It’s so easy now to turn the past into myth,’ says Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Cundill History Prize juror Anne Applebaum.

The history of this year, in the Cundill History Prize hometown of Montreal, is being written in inelegant coronavirus public warning signs such as these, which instruct citizens to play tennis with marked balls to avoid spreading the pathogen. Image from May 23 – iStockphoto: Jean-Francois

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

Digital Protocols for the Jury
As Publishing Perspectives readers will recall from our February interview, Peter Frankopan is chairing the jury for this year’s Cundill History Prize, the US$75,000 book award program from Montreal’s McGill University. Today (May 26), the program is naming Frankopan’s fellow jurors and hearing from them on what history offers in the baffling tensions being experienced in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Such writings need not, of course, treat public health emergencies directly. The contagion seems to “shed” social, political, and even faith-based challenges like an infected patient sheds the virus itself.

  • What can history tell us, for example, about people who take to the streets, even take up arms, to protest measures promoted by public health officials, measures designed to protect the very citizens who are protesting? What goes into the context of such a remarkably dangerous response to another danger?
  • In a World Economic Forum article by Sean B. Carroll from the summer of 2016, we read of how in the depths of the cold war, Moscow and Washington collaborated on the effort to eradicate smallpox. The American epidemiologist Larry Brilliant published his memoir on the struggle to defeat smallpox, Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History (HarperCollins/HarperOne, 2018).
  • On a broader level, it would help to know what history can tell us about societies and/or eras in which expertise has become suspect and frequently derided because popularists don’t like what specialists have to say. We’re reminded of Andrew Keen‘s The Cult of the Amateur (Penguin Random House/Currency, 2007) on the user-generated rejection of erudition and mastery
The best historical writing “forces us out of our comfort zone, no matter where that comfort zone is—left, right, or center. That’s why history is so vital for civic health.”Eliga Gould

The program has reworked several of its procedures in alignment with public health guidance.

More than 300 submissions have been received for this year’s program from publishers—only in digital formats. With the window for putting books forward having closed on May 1 (which includes an extension), the Cundill’s staff has pre-loaded e-readers with the titles in contention. After the panel spends the summer reading and meets on video, a shortlist is expected in mid-September from which three finalists are drawn. As is the case each year, US$10,000 will go to each of the two runners-up in addition to the winner’s purse of $75,000.

The winner is to be named November 19 in Montreal, and last year’s laureate, Julia Lovell, gives the program’s lecture a day earlier, on November 18. Titles eligible this year must have been published between June 1 last year and Sunday (May 31).

At this writing, the 3:32 a.m. ET update (0732 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the reported world caseload in COVID-19 infections totals 5,508,904, Brazil having slammed past even Russia and the United Kingdom to become second in the world, a suddenly arriving hotspot of soaring cases (374,898 in this update). The world’s death toll to the virus: 346,508 fatalities.

And with the pandemic as an unwelcome backdrop to the work this year, the emergency is clearly on these jurors’ minds as the Cundill History Prize names them and they issue their opening commentary on what’s to come.

Urgency: ‘Making Sense of the World,’ and Trump

Peter Frankopan

“As we’ve all been learning during lockdown, making sense of the world around us has never been more important,” says Frankopan, professor of global history at Oxford, a senior research fellow at Worcester College, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research.

This has been an extraordinary year for history writing, with some truly exceptional books that have changed how we look at the past.”

Displaying his flair for the economic drivers of many elements of history, Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Bloomsbury, 2015, and in the States, Penguin Random House/Vintage, 2016) was followed  by The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World (Bloomsbury, 2018, and in the States, PenguinRandomHouse/Vintage, 2019).

Anne Applebaum

And a writer in contemporary political journalism, Anne Applebaum says, “There has never been a moment when good history—fact-based, well-researched, but also well-written—has been so necessary.”

Applebaum is the author of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Penguin Random House/Anchor, 2012). And she’s the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning author in nonfiction of Gulag: A History (Penguin Random House/Anchor, 2004).

At the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, she runs a project on 21st century disinformation. And she’s a staff writer with The Atlantic, where earlier this month, she wrote about a short video on Donald Trump, a piece put together by Atlantic Studios.

“Americans, as a rule,” she wrote, “rarely compare themselves with other countries, so convinced are we that our system is superior, that our politicians are better, that our democracy is the fairest and most robust in the world.

“But watch this video and ask yourself: Is this the kind of leadership you expect from a superpower?

“Does this make you feel confident in our future? Or is this man a warning signal, a blinking red light, a screaming siren telling all of us, and all of the world, that something about our political system has gone profoundly awry?”

In the video piece, with music by Paul Mottram, you see Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen, New Zealand’s  Jacinda Ardern, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, all speaking, as Applebaum writes, “of evidence-based policy, of the need to take the disease seriously, of empathy and solidarity.”

We’ll embed the video here (3:30 minutes) so you can see what she’s discussing.

“Even now,” she writes, “even in the worst public-health crisis in a century, he divides people instead of unifying them, creating precisely the kind of distrust that makes the disease harder to defeat.”

One of the things Applebaum’s research and analysis on the Soviet state addresses is “the disturbing question [of] why the Gulag has remained relatively obscure in the historical memory of both the former Soviet Union and the West.”

Now, preparing for her work on the Cundill jury, she says, “It’s so easy now to turn the past into myth; great history books can prevent that from happening.”

‘We Need To Delve Into What’s Gone Before’

Sujit Sivasundaram

The British-Sri Lankan historian Sujit Sivasundaram, says, “One thing we need in order to find a way out of the fatigue and toll of the pandemic is brilliant, surprising and creative historical writing.

“This is the kind of writing that can distract as well as resonate, that brings past worlds to view in vivid detail, and which shows the deep roots of our present.

“Our task will not be easy but I’m sure we’ll find these qualities in rich measure. Historical writing in 2020 seems even more dynamic than before in engaging with a rich set of issues from environmental change to decolonization and globalization.

“It looks at the past from a diverse set of vantage points. I relish the prospect of this marathon of reading—what better for a period of social-distancing?”

Lyse Doucet

BBC chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet OBE is familiar both to viewers of World News and listeners of BBC’s World Service radio, and she set up the network’s Amman bureau in 1994. In her remarks for today’s announcement, Doucet subtly points out that while we may find the experience of a pervasive pathogen unique and surreal, history knows this story.

“Now, more than ever,” Doucet says, “as we ponder an uncertain future, we need to delve into what’s gone before, been thought and done before. To be a juror for the 2020 Cundill History Prize is to be given a key that unlocks other worlds—the landscapes inhabited by the best scholars and students of history alike.

“I hope to discover authors and books that bring the past to life through storytelling as real and urgent as our own time.

“I want to be drawn into writing in which characters lift from the pages and powerful turns of phrase spark insights and ideas. I want a ringing affirmation of how much history matters.”

Eliga Gould

University of New Hampshire history professor Eliga Gould is the author of The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press with the Omohundro Institute, 2000).

In his comments he seems to back up what Frankopan likes to say about the inherent accessibility of the best history writing. , “Good history builds on and broadens what other historians have already said, but it does so in ways that are accessible to the reading public.

“Accessibility is really, really important. Because history is the story of complicated people and diverse, complex societies, the best history always surprises. It forces us out of our comfort zone, no matter where that comfort zone is—left, right, or center.

“That’s why history is so vital for civic health.”

On the pandemic-emptied streets of Montreal, May 19. Image – iStockphoto: Christian Ouellet


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Cundill History Prize is here. And more on literary prizes in general is here.  More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

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 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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