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

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The Cundill History Prize’s 2023 shortlist is evenly divided between trade and university presses, finalists to be named October 16.

Image: Cundill History Prize

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

Gopnik: ‘A Contribution to an Ideal of History’
Trade and university presses have leveled up this year on the Cundill History Prize‘s shortlist. Last year, three of the shortlisted titles were from university presses and five were from the trade.

The Cundill’s new eight-title shortlist includes four books from trade houses:

  • The iconic British independent house Faber & Faber
  • Another independent, Navayana Press, which “focuses on the issue of caste from an anti-caste perspective”
  • Hachette Book Group’s Basic Books
  • Penguin Random House / Patheon Books, which is led by Lisa Lucas, senior vice-president and publisher

Among university presses this year, two shortlistings have gone to the University of Chicago Press, and one each to Harvard the University of Washington.

As you’ll remember, the Montreal-based Cundill, seated at McGill University is one of a handful of world-class major awards in nonfiction, joined in that elite group by the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction; the renamed $25,000 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding (formerly the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize); the UK’s £50,000 Wolfson History Prize; and the €25,000 German Nonfiction Prize.

In the size of its purse, the Cundill History Prize does outrank those similarly positioned competitions. In addition to US$75,000 for the winner, the Cundill purse offers US$10,000 to each of two runners-up, making its total pay-out US$77,000. It’s open to authors from anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality or place of residence, as well as to books translated into English.

On the jury this year with chair Philippa Levine are historians Marie Favereau, Eve M. Troutt Powell, Sol Serrano, Coll Thrush, and The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik.

Author Tiya Miles was named the winner of the 2022 honor for All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake from Penguin Random House. For Americans, the title and Miles’ work may ring a bell because Miles won the 2021 National Book Award in nonfiction for All That She Carried. She has also been given the American Historical Association’s Joan Kelly Memorial Prize, which recognizes work in women’s history and/or feminist theory.

Last month, the Baillie Gifford Prize jury in London included All That She Carried on its 13-title longlist.

The terminology used by the Cundill departs from that of most book and publishing contests’ phrasing. Rather than producing a longlist and a shortlist, this program calls its jury’s output a shortlist of eight books, a finalists’ list of three titles, and a winner.

Cundill History Prize 2023 Shortlist
Author Title Publisher / Imprint
Alison Bashford The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution University of Chicago Press
Tania Branigan

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution

Faber & Faber
Matthew Connelly The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets Penguin Random House / Pantheon Books
Mackenzie Cooley

The Perfection of Nature: Animals, Breeding, and Race in the Renaissance

University of Chicago Press
Kate Cooper Queens of a Fallen World: The Lost Women of Augustine’s Confessions Hachette / Basic Books
Douglas Ober Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in India Navayana Press
James Morton Turner

Charged: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future

University of Washington Press
Patrick Weil

The Madman in the White House: Sigmund Freud, Ambassador Bullitt, and the Lost Psychobiography of Woodrow Wilson

Harvard University Press
Levine: ‘Original Conceptions and a Gripping Story’

At the September 28 event in New York City in which the 2023 Cundill History Prize shortlist was named. Onstage from left are Lisa Shapiro, dean of arts at McGill University; Philippa Levine, jury chair; Jennifer L. Morgan, previous Cundill juror; and Eve M. Troutt Powell, a 2023 juror. Image: Cundill History Prize, Yuan Images

This year’s shortlist was announced Thursday evening (September 28) in New York City at Scandinavia House, with Levine, her jury-panel colleague Powell and Jennifer L. Morgan, who is a past juror.

Philippa Levine

Levine, speaking about the shortlist, said, “This shortlist includes heart-breaking tales from China’s Cultural Revolution, biography, environmental concerns, religion, data management, and much more.

“It ranges in time from the ancient Mediterranean to the really recent past, and examines animals as well as humans. Every one of these authors advances original conceptions and tells a gripping story.”

Adam Gopnik

And juror Gopnik in a prepared statement is quoted, saying, “The shortlist we’ve assembled for the Cundill History Prize pleases me, as a non-academic with transiently scholarly tastes, for its range, and its insistence on the registry of particular human experience within the broader currents of social history.

“Whether looking at the surprising interchange of mysticism and materialism in the Huxley family, or considering the hidden lives of the women who helped shape the theology of Augustine—whether finding the most bizarre and illuminating connection between Sigmund Freud and Woodrow Wilson, or tracking the inventors who made the mundane but essential invention of the battery—these books are a contribution to an ideal of history as a thing perpetually open to human intervention, and therefore inviting contemporary readers to intervene in their own.”

Previous winners of the award are:

  • Tiya Miles (2022)
  • Marjoleine Kars (2021)
  • 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)

Peter Cundill

The Cundill History Prize was founded by Peter Cundill (1938-2011), who was the founder of the Cundill Value Fund.

He established the Cundill History Prize in 2008, two years after being diagnosed with Fragile X Tremor/Ataxia Syndrome, with which he died in London.

This year, the three finalists are expected to be named on October 16, a date close enough to the October 18 opening of Frankfurter Buchmesse that the news may be missed by many.

This is not a timing risk that belongs only to the Cundill. The leadership of many competitions, companies, and organizations can assume that pushing out their news in close calendar-proximity to a major but unrelated publishing trade show will somehow give them more visibility. In fact, the industry’s biggest events are likely to delay or at least shadow much worthy contemporaneous news.

The 2023 Cundill winner is to be named in Montreal on November 8 amid the two-day “Cundill Forum” events.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Cundill History Prize is here. More on the international industry’s publishing and book awards is here, more on the Canadian book market is here, and more on nonfiction 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.

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