Cundill History Prize Names Michael Ignatieff To Lead Jury

In News by Porter Anderson

The former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff is also the author of several books including a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel.

Michael Ignatieff. Image – iStockphoto: Central European University, Daniel Vegel

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

‘Our Understanding of the Contemporary World’
The Montreal-based US$75,000 Cundill History Prize is opening its 2021 cycle with the announcement today (February 23) of a particularly interesting choice of jury chair: a politician.

Michael Ignatieff is a former member of the Canadian parliament. As leader of the Liberal Party of Canada–which currently forms Ottawa’s government—he headed up the Official Opposition, in French the chef de l’Opposition officielle—from 2008 to 2011. He now is president and rector of Central European University, a Vienna-based research school founded in 1991 by George Soros and today a member of the CIVICA Alliance of European universities. You may recall that in late 2018, Central European University largely withdrew from its second base in Budapest, following the Orban regime’s interference with its academic independence.

The selection of Ignatieff by Canada’s highly internationalized Cundill History Prize program—seated at McGill University—may be one of the canniest moves by a leading world publishing program this season, and the the Cundill is the richest of its breed, as Publishing Perspectives readers know.

Prize and award news arrives daily now, the 2021 cycle in full swing. English-language award programs jostle for media attention and programs in other languages flank the big anglophone contests with zeal.

Since it began a re-introduction of itself with its 10th anniversary in 2017, the Cundill has positioned itself as one of the most-watched programs of its kind, not least because its focus is inherently political in an age of politicization. Not for nothing was the best known of its jurors last year the political analyst, author, and The Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum. She won the 2013 Cundill honor for Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (Penguin Random House, 2013).

In its announcement today that Ignatieff succeeds Peter Frankopan as jury chief this year, the program recalls that the former Canadian lawmaker is also a novelist shortlisted by the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1993 for his reflection on grief and loss, Scar Tissue.

Penguin Random House UK also features Ignatieff’s 10-year interview biographical project Isaiah Berlin: A Life (2000); Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan (2003); Charlie Johnson in the Flames (2004); and Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism (2013).

With Princeton Univeristy Press, he has published Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (2001); The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2004); and American Exceptionalism and Human Rights (2005).

And with Harvard University Press, Ignatieff has released Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (2013); and The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World (2019).

Prior to taking up his post at the Central European University in 2016, Ignatieff taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the University of Toronto. Between 1978 and 2000, he worked as a television and radio broadcaster in the United Kingdom, and the BBC carried his documentary Blood and Belonging. He delivered Canada’s Massey Lectures in 2000 and was elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 2006 as MP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

In a prepared statement for today’s announcement, Ignatieff is quoted, saying, “I’m a historian by training and like nothing better than history books that upend our understanding of the present.

“So it’s a wonderful opportunity to chair this year’s Cundill History Prize and go in search of great history writing that tells a compelling story, is grounded in world-class research, and changes our understanding of the contemporary world.”

Ignatieff was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2016.

Jason Opal

Jason Opal, speaking as chair of McGill’s department of history and classical studies, comments on Ignatieff’s “unique perspective on the human past and the human condition.

“As an historian, writer, political leader, and expert on human rights and international affairs, he is ideally suited to help us find the very best in historical writing and scholarship. As the world is facing overlapping crises, it is vital to understand history itself—to see how we arrived at this point, and, from there, how we might change course. This is the central purpose of the Cundill History Prize, as we continue to seek out the books that help us navigate our troubled times.”

No other jury members have been announced by the Cundill at this time.

Deadline for Submissions: April 30

Submissions for the 2021 Cundill cycle are open to April 30. The prize is open to authors from anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality or place of residence, and also accepts translations into English. Last year, it was fully transitioned to its entirely digital submissions process. Information on making submissions is here.

The Cundill program eschews a longlist for, essentially, two shortlists, the first expected in September and its three-book finalists in October. The winner is to be named in December.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the 2020 Cundill History Prize was won by Camilla Townsend for Fifth Sun: A History of the Aztecs (Oxford University Press USA).

Past winners of the Cundill History Prize are:

  • Camilla Townsend (2020)
  • Julia Lovell (2019)
  • Maya Jasanoff (2018)
  • Daniel Beer (2017)
  • Thomas W. Laqueur (2016)
  • Susan Pedersen (2015)
  • Gary Bass (2014)
  • Anne Applebaum (2013)
  • Stephen Platt (2012)
  • Sergio Luzzatto (2011)
  • Diarmaid MacCulloch (2010)
  • Lisa Jardine (2009)
  • Stuart B. Schwartz (2008)
The Coronavirus in Canada

At this writing, the 9:24 a.m. ET (1424 GMT) update of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center sees 850,737 cases in Canada’s population of 38 million, with 21,720 fatalities. Concerns about COVID-19 variants and criticism of Ottawa’s vaccination efforts lead coverage.

As of Friday (February 19), Jeff Gray, Marieke Walsh, and Laura Stone were reporting for The Globe and Mail that Ontario has extended stay-at-home orders for Toronto and the Peel Region, “as new modelling from federal officials warns that more contagious variants of COVID-19 could prompt Canada’s cases to skyrocket to 20,000 new infections a day.

“The projections released Friday morning by the Public Health Agency of Canada,” they write, “warn that if the highly contagious variants first found in Britain, South Africa, and Brazil are allowed to flourish without further restrictions, they could trigger a deadly third wave before mass vaccinations are set to launch in earnest in April.”

And in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, also from Friday, Michael Taube writes, “Although Canada purchased 398 million doses in all, more than 70 percent are vaccines that haven’t received approval from health officials. The Liberals have pointed fingers at drug companies and provincial governments.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Cundill History Prize is here. More from us on literary prizes in general is here, and more on nonfiction is here, and more on history writing is here.  

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he 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.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (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.