Canada’s $75,000 Cundill History Prize Announces Its 2021 Shortlist

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

With its finalists to be named from Frankfurter Buchmesse, the Cundill History Prize releases its shortlist.

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

Ignatieff: ‘Subjects That Continue To Define the Present’
It’s springtime for Harvard University Press.

The just-released shortlist for the 2021 edition of Canada’s Cundill History Prize provides a quick lesson in the ranks of American publishers of magisterial-but-accessible historical writing. The eight-title shortlist features three titles from Harvard in the United States, two from Princeton University Press, and one from Yale University Press. In the United Kingdom, one of the three US Harvard titles—Tim Harper’s Underground Asia—is published by Penguin Random House UK/Allen Lane.

Suffice it to say that the kind of commercially viable, keenly relevant, and deftly marketed historical work in which the Cundill program specializes normally can be expected to find a home at one of the leading Ivy presses. The other two publishers who deserve accolades today are Hachette’s Basic Books and the reliably progressive nonprofit New Press, established by its executive editor Dianne Wachtel and the late André Schiffrin 1992.

Since the Cundill award program began a re-introduction of itself with its 10th anniversary in 2017, it has been positioned as one of the most-watched prize offerings of its kind, not least because its focus is inherently political in an age of relentless politicization.

Granted, a naysayer might look at the shortlisted The Infinite History‘s 464-page length and worry that it’s an aptly named book that will require the three centuries it covers to finish. But the Cundill has achieved a reputation for what a previous jury chair, Peter Frankopan, called “parallels or subjects that echo with the modern world.”

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) and her woefully timely The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (Doubleday, 2020) has been named a best book of the year by both the Washington Post and the Financial Times.

Michael Ignatieff

This year’s jury is headed by Michael Ignatieff, the former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party and a Booker Prize shortlisted author, himself. Joining him on the panel are Eric Foner, Henrietta Harrison, Sunil Khilnani, and Jennifer L. Morgan.

The still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has unleashed a global outbreak of video events in book publishing, and so the Cundill’s shortlist was announced today (September 23) in an online piece, which we’ll embed for you in this article. The digital program is hosted by Mary Hunter, who is dean of the faculty of arts at Montreal’s McGill University, the seat of the Cundill. And the tape includes an appearance by the 2020 winner, Camilla Townsend whose Fifth Sun: A History of the Aztecs was published by Oxford University Press USA.

The next step in the Cundill’s approach to naming a winner is an announcement of three finalists drawn from today’s shortlist.

That lucky trio is to be named on October 20 in a program originating with the Frankfurter Buchmesse program from the Frankfurt Studio: Inside Publishing. Viewed by trade visitors on the fairground’s special Agora screen and streamed live, that program is set for 6 p.m. CEST / 5 p.m. BST / 1600 GMT / noon ET.

In addition to the US$75,000 that goes to the annual winner of the Cundill, the two runners-up from that threesome of finalists each get US$10,000. The Cundill History Prize is one of the richest awards in the English language. It’s also one of the most generously open to strong published work–submissions can come from anywhere in the world regardless of an author’s nationality, and works translated into English are accepted for consideration.

Cundill History Prize 2021 Shortlist

Author Title Publisher / Imprint
Manan Ahmed Asif The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India Harvard University Press
Rebecca Clifford Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust Yale University Press
Marie Favereau The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World Harvard University Press / Belknap
Tim Harper Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire Harvard University Press / Belknap
Martha S. Jones Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All Hachette / Basic Books
Marjoleine Kars Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast The New Press
Emma Rothschild An Infinite History: The Story of a Family in France Over Three Centuries Princeton University Press
Tyler Stovall White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea Princeton University Press
Jury Comments: ‘Startling and Gripping’

Working with Michael Ignatieff on the 2021 Cundill jury are, from left. Eric Foner, Henrietta Harrison, Sunil Khilnani, and Jennifer L. Morgan

In describing the shortlist announced today, Ignatieff said, “The historians whose books made our 2021 shortlist are all fine writers, with a compelling story to tell, backed up by years of careful research.

“They all use historical scholarship to address subjects – race, class, empire, revolution, and memory – that continue to define the present. Choosing these eight books from a field of 360 wasn’t easy because there is so much exciting history being written these days. We hope we’ve chosen books that readers will enjoy reading as much as we did.”

The Cundill History Prize shortlisted titles are “revisionist in the best sense – they challenge prevailing ideas and propose new ways of looking at familiar subjects.”Eric Foner, Cundill juror

Ignatieff’s jury colleague Morgan said that the selected titles “bring an exciting range of analytical precision to topics that range widely over time and space–teaching us so much about the possibilities of archival scholarship for the contemporary moment.”

Khilnani was impressed with how each of these reads, he said, “makes the historical past come to life in startling and gripping ways. Spanning time, geography, and scale of analysis, these books bring to bear sophisticated methods and deep scholarship, expressed in clear and graceful form. They manifest the value of historical perspective, especially in our uncertain times.”

Perhaps the most interesting comment came from Foner, who said these titles are “revisionist in the best sense–they challenge prevailing ideas and propose new ways of looking at familiar subjects.”

And he nails the canny success of the Cundill, as Frankopan did, adding, “And they are written in a style accessible to the general public.

“The Cundill History Prize,” Foner says, “reassures us of the health and vitality of the historical profession today.”

Previous winners of the award 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)

Here’s today’s video announcement of the Cundill History Prize’s 2021 shortlist:

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Cundill History Prize is here. And more on publishing and book awards in general is here. More on Frankfurter Buchmesse 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

Facebook Twitter

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.