By Grace Briggs-Jones
The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction enters its 25th year and marks this momentous occasion by announcing a Winner of Winners Award. A special one-off prize will crown the best work of non-fiction from the last twenty-five years with the winner receiving £25,000! According to Chair of judges, Jason Cowley, the shortlist “showcases the best of this great prize and features works of high ambition, formal innovation, and thrilling originality.”
On the shortlist is the 2020 prize winner One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown. This book traces the chance fusion that made up The Beatles: fire (John), water (Paul), air (George) and earth (Ringo). It is a kaleidoscopic mixture of history, etymology, diaries, autobiography, fan letters, essays, parallel lives, party lists, charts, interviews, announcements and stories. Featuring bizarre and often unfortunate tales of disparate and colourful people, including Yoko Ono and the Maharishi, this book joyfully echoes the frenetic hurly-burly of an era, and it’s one that all Beatles fans should have on their bookshelf.
Winner of the 2012 prize Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis finds itself on this year’s shortlist. Twenty-three British climbers took on three expeditions walking 400 miles off the map to find the highest mountain on Earth. Of that twenty-three, six had been severely wounded, two nearly killed by disease at the Front, one hospitalised twice with shell shock, three were army surgeons having witnessed the agony of the dying, two lost brothers killed in action, and all had endured the slaughter of The Great War. In a book that took ten years to write, and became a monumental work of history, Wade Davis asks not whether George Mallory was the first to reach the summit of Everest, but why he kept climbing.
How did Shakespeare become one of the greatest writers who ever lived? This is exactly the question James Shapiro’s 2006 prize winning book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare aims to answer.
In the year Shakespeare turned thirty-five he had completed Henry V, written Julius Caesar and As You Like It in quick succession, and produced the first draft of Hamlet. Exploring how Shakespeare worked as an actor, businessman and playwright, Shapiro’s detailed narrative sheds light on Shakespeare’s most extraordinary year. From a tale of two star-crossed lovers to revenge tragedy, Shapiro shows how the Bard made this progression and ultimately attempts to answer the most pressing question that surrounds William Shakespeare.
Nothing to Envy Real Lives in North Korea won the prize in 2010 and is on this year’s shortlist. Barbara Demick conducted extensive interviews with defactors, showing in a compelling and unforgettable way how North Korea is the embodiment of Orwell’s 1984.
Two lovers who dated secretly for years and feared to criticise the regime to each other; a young homeless boy; an idealistic woman doctor; a factory worker who loves Kim II Sung more than her own family; and her rebellious daughter are the six defectors who have had their stories told. From spies studying expressions for sincerity during political rallies to all radio and television broadcasts being government sponsored, this book has been called “an outstanding work of journalism” (The Times) and is definitely an eye-opening read!
Winning in 2021, Empire of Pain The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty is a masterpiece of narrative reporting and writing, shortlisted this year. A portrait of the excesses of America’s second Gilded Age, this book is a study of impunity among the super elite, and relentlessly investigates the greed and indifference to human suffering that built one of the world’s great fortunes. A story of three doctor brothers who lived through the poverty of the Great Depression and anti-Semitism turns into a story of the Sacklers, who were responsible for making and marketing a blockbuster painkiller that was a catalyst for the opioid crisis. This book dives into the story behind the Sackler name and the damaging source of their great fortune.
In 2002 Margaret MacMillan’s The Paris Conference of 1919 and It’s Attempt to End War won the award, and it has been shortlisted this year, albeit under the new title Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. This book argues that the peacemakers, including Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau, have been unfairly turned into scapegoats for the mistakes that came after the agreement. Provocative, fresh and extremely readable, MacMillan re-examines the six-month long brokering of peace, casting new light on the negotiations that shaped the modern world. A must read for those who are interested in the making of the modern world, and the story behind a controversial post-war agreement!
With all twenty-four previous winners being displayed in Waterstones, this is a great opportunity to grab a copy and get reading before the winner is announced on Thursday 27 April at an event held at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Congratulations to the six shortlisted authors – we do not envy the judges’ job!