Literary Nonfiction & Biography

Best Nonfiction Books of 2017

recommended by Peter Bazalgette

It's hard to choose the very best nonfiction books of 2017, but the Baillie Gifford Prize aims to do just that. The chair of this year's judging panel, Peter Bazalgette, talks us through the six fabulous books that made the shortlist.

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Peter Bazalgette

Peter Bazalgette is chair of the judging panel of the 2017 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. He is Chairman of ITV and is currently leading an independent review into the UK’s creative industries as part of the Government’s new Industrial Strategy. Peter is also Chair of HM Government’s Holocaust Memorial Foundation and serves on the Advisory Boards of BBH and YouGov. From 2013 until 2017 he was Chair of Arts Council England.

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Peter Bazalgette

Peter Bazalgette is chair of the judging panel of the 2017 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. He is Chairman of ITV and is currently leading an independent review into the UK’s creative industries as part of the Government’s new Industrial Strategy. Peter is also Chair of HM Government’s Holocaust Memorial Foundation and serves on the Advisory Boards of BBH and YouGov. From 2013 until 2017 he was Chair of Arts Council England.

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Are these the very best nonfiction books of 2017?

The way it works is that publishers submit books—and they submitted, in all, about 160-170 books. Then we, as a group of judges, cut that list of 170 down to about 80, based on reputation, reviews and existing information. Then we get to work on the 80. We make sure that every book is read by two judges. It means that every judge has to read about 25 books. And then we get it down to a longlist of 12 and then a shortlist of 6.

One thing that I would add is that this year—and I think for the organizers it was a new thing—they called in a couple of books that either the judges or the organisers thought had promise but hadn’t been offered by the publishers.

And one of those books, The Islamic Enlightenment, came through to the shortlist. So I was very pleased that by intervening and taking a slightly broader view, we found at least one book of real merit.

So, as far as I’m concerned, yes, they are.

One of the problems with nonfiction is it’s so broad. It could be about anything. How do you set about defining what the subject matter should be?

There was no bar on subject matter. It could be literally about anything, as long as it wasn’t fiction. We had some basic criteria that we all gathered around, but I said to everybody right at the start, ‘If you’ve got your own personal criteria, that’s fine too. Chuck it in and see if we agree with you.’

But I don’t think anybody disagreed with the idea that it had to be extremely well written. It had be something you want to read. Not like All-Bran, something that you must read. It had to be enjoyable because otherwise why bother?

Our ambition was also to try and find a book we thought was “important.” And a good example of a book that’s important was last year’s winner, East West Street— that incredible story of the Nuremberg Trials and the two jurists who shaped the new international laws under which the Nazis were prosecuted. And how they all came from Lvov, where the author, Philippe Sands, came from as well.

That was an important book, about a very important subject—especially in an era when we have lots of hate crime and racism online. So, whether we succeeded in coming up with a book as important perhaps others can judge, but that was our ambition: an important book.

I’ll tell you one other thing about nonfiction books, which is that they’re bloody long! There are long novels, of course, but if you’re judging a fiction prize, the average is often two to three hundred pages. The average nonfiction is higher than that. When we got to the stage of reading 25 books each, the way I dealt with it is that I had most of them put onto a Kindle so I could take them with me on holiday—because otherwise I would have had to hire a camel to transport them across the continent to my house in Italy.

Let’s go through the shortlist, starting with The Islamic Enlightenment by Chris de Bellaigue. It’s focusing on Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, I think, and on the 19th and 20th centuries?

When I saw the title of the book, I thought it was going to be about the flowering of Islamic culture in mediaeval times—when they probably printed and had more books than we had in Western culture. It was very interesting for me to discover that it wasn’t about that, but an Islamic enlightenment I didn’t know about, in the 19th century.

Now, today, because of the evident prejudice towards Islam you see in some places, we’ve seen Donald Trump trying to ban people entering the United States from some Muslim countries. We know the cause of it is terrorist activity. (By the way, I couldn’t resist tweeting something I read in the FT two days ago, which had been culled, I think, from the Huff Post. It was a wonderful pair of statistics. It was the number of people killed by lawnmowers in 2017 in America: 69 and the number of people killed by Islamic terrorists: 2. Don’t you love that?)

If we’re thinking carelessly, we now have this view of Islam as a hardcore religion based on the Quran. You mustn’t depart from what the Quran says and all the rest of it. But of course the truth is—and Bellaigue proves this in his book—that during the whole of the 19th century it was like all religions, which is that they express certainties, but they change as society changes.

“It had be something you want to read. Not like All-Bran, something that you must read. It had to be enjoyable because otherwise why bother?”

During the 19th century, Islam had to deal with the introduction of medicine and of operations, with the intimacy required for real medicine. That happened in Egypt. It had to deal with modern transport. There’s a wonderful photograph of a female aviator, very early in the 20th century, in Turkey. And so on and so forth.

All modernization during the industrial revolution—which was not just industrial but also technical, scientific, and so on—was a threat and challenge to the expressed certainties of religion. And the religion changed, because all religions do. Whether you’re religious or not, that’s what they do. That was a real revelation for me. And I thought it was a brilliant subject for Bellaigue to pick.

The other thing about Bellaigue is that he is an entertaining writer. People may have thought I was being slightly over the top when I said this on the night of the prize, but I stick by it: his style is somewhat in the tradition of Gibbon and Strachey. Both Edward Gibbon and Lytton Strachey were very funny writers, they liked to make jokes and exercise their wit. And Bellaigue also has that spare wit that I like.

Is the book about Atatürk and secularisation in Turkey?

It does stretch into the early 20th century, so Atatürk comes towards the end of it, but it’s really about the 19th century. Atatürk brought in the secular, but this book is about Islam and about Islam changing.

So let’s go on to your next book: How to Survive a Plague by David France. This was ultimately the winner of this year’s Baillie Gifford Prize. It’s about the activists and the process that turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable illness.

This was a remarkable book—quite a chunky one, with a hell of a story to tell. David France was a gay man living in New York in the early 1980s, a young man and therefore sexually active.

It’s really on three levels, the book. It’s a personal story of when the AIDS epidemic hit in ’82, ’83—how it ravaged his circle and the tragedy it represented to the personal relationships and the gay community in New York (and, by implication, gay communities anywhere).

Secondly, it’s a societal story. It charts how a society, confronted by this medical emergency, had to confront its own prejudices. There was massive prejudice against homosexuals. And it charts the enlightenment—if I can use that word—that happened as a result. It’s not a catalyst for enlightenment that you would choose. It’s a terrible curse with the deaths and everything, but nevertheless.

“There were campaigns, there was misunderstanding, there was bad behaviour on both sides. It’s an extraordinary narrative.”

Thirdly, it’s a science and industrial story. Big Pharma had to come up with, if not a cure, at least a palliative, which we now have. People with AIDS have a good prognosis with a combination of antiretroviral drugs. The people in David France’s circle were the guinea pigs for the drug companies. They were also campaigning the government and the drug companies to get on with it and not make too many profits—all the arguments we had about antiretroviral drugs in South Africa, which has a terrible AIDS problem. But this is earlier, in the 80s. There were campaigns, there was misunderstanding, there was bad behaviour on both sides. It’s an extraordinary narrative.

Now it turns out that the book was partly culled from the documentary he made of the same name, which he did first. A lot of the verbatim quotes in the book are from interviews he did for his documentary. For a long time people said to him, ‘There’s no market for this book, nobody wants the 80s hashed up again.’

But it’s a fantastic book, you’re swept along by the power of the narrative and the intensity of the way he describes his experience and the number of people who die who we get to know quite well. It’s a very, very powerful book.

It also absolutely qualifies as an important book, which is one of the reasons it won. It tells a very important story.

Yes, also because worldwide AIDS is still a huge problem. On Five Books, we have an interview on HIV/AIDS with the doctor who discovered that the virus can be transmitted from mother to child. He’s a paediatric immunologist. His view is that all these battles were fought in the 80s, but there is also a big battle that needs to be fought now.

Yes. It’s still relevant medically and it’s still relevant in a societal sense, with prejudice and denial of the sexuality that people are apparently born with. There are religions and countries that still condemn homosexuality and imprison people for it. I published a book this year called The Empathy Instinct in which I quote that, since the revolution in 1979, 4,000 homosexuals have been put to death in Iran. It’s worth remembering that statistic. That tells you how important How to Survive a Plague is.

Let’s go on to Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova. I had to look it up on a map, where exactly this border was. It’s an area I know little about, but it has clearly been very important, both historically and today.

This is a highly unusual book. Two of the books on the shortlist, Border and An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn, are elegiacally written. In terms of pure style, they have slightly more rich or floral writing, which may not be to everyone’s taste. But I thought Border was extraordinarily poetically written. In a strange way, it’s a cross between Eric Newby, who wrote A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Paddy Leigh Fermor. They’re also about travel.

“This book was written partly with a grant from Creative Scotland…It’s rather marvellous that small amounts of state funding can underpin the creation of works of literature like this.”

She’s also exploring her own roots, because until the age of eight she lived in that region, where Greece meets Turkey meets Bulgaria. And then, age eight, she went to Australia. Later on, she ended up living in Scotland, which is where she is now. And this book was written partly with a grant from Creative Scotland, which is the Arts Council equivalent. It’s rather marvellous that small amounts of state funding can underpin the creation of works of literature like this.

So she’s exploring her own background and her own culture, but by going to visit these villages either side of the border she’s exploring something quite profound, which is tribalism, really. There are Muslims, Greek Orthodox and Christians living here. These borders have changed over the centuries. But there are people who identify with the Turks or with the Greeks or with the Bulgarians.

There’s references back to some of the changes of border—pogroms, wars, pestilences, famines. It’s just an extraordinary meditation on the nature of borders and the nature of tribalism. When we come together and when we don’t come together. And it’s beautifully written. It’s a most inspiring book.

It was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week as well, which I thought was interesting because they are quite careful pickers.

Let’s go on to An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic. This is by Daniel Mendelsohn.

So this is the other book of the six that was, I’d say, the most beautifully written. Daniel Mendelsohn is a teacher of classics at Bard College on the East coast of the US and is a great fan of Homer’s Odyssey. He’s teaching a class on the Odyssey and his 82-year-old father decides to join the class with all these 18- and 19-year-olds.

It becomes an exploration of his relationship with his father. It becomes an exploration of Homer’s Odyssey, which you get to know a lot about. It becomes an exploration of how Homer’s Odyssey, being a great human narrative, like all great human narratives applies to our lives today as much as it ever did. Therefore it’s a reaffirmation of the importance of not just the storytelling, but of classics as well.

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So it’s all those things, and it’s rather beautiful. At the end, his father dies. Probably his father was slightly crusty and didn’t always express his emotions—as is often the case between fathers and sons. But in the final years of his life he got to know his father really well. He did something really important before his father died.

Is it also a travel book?

Not really, because most of it takes place in New York in the class. But towards the end of the book he does go on one of these Hellenic tours—I can’t remember off hand but I think Daniel Mendelsohn may even be lecturing on the cruise—and that is part of the book and part of the bonding between him and his father. That’s towards the end.

So the Odyssey can literally refer to the cruise they take together, but it refers more to the exploration of his relationship with his father.

Okay. So the next book, To Be A Machine, is about transhumanism, which is another very important topic at the moment.

So Mark O’Connell has written a very witty, clever book. He’s a good journalist. Another one of the debates we had around the table, as judges, was the difference between literary writing and journalism. How to Survive a Plague is extremely good journalism. To Be a Machine is extremely good journalism. But the ambition of both An Odyssey and Border is to be works of literature rather than works of journalism. Can a work of journalism win over a work of literature? And it can. There was a debate—and I’m not going to reveal who said what and who voted how—but in the end it was a unanimous decision that How to Survive a Plague should win.

To Be a Machine is a great piece of journalism by the Irish journalist, Mark O’Connell. He’s gone to America and met all these wacky characters. Essentially, they are men with low emotional intelligence but high egos, who cannot imagine themselves ceasing to exist. So they seek to, and believe rather madly in, prolonging their lives forever—either because they’ve been converted into computer algorithms or because they’ve been cryogenically preserved and will get brought to life again in the future. Both those themes are in it.

“It made what’s left of my hair stand on end. And it also made me laugh.”

It’s a work, therefore, of craziness, humour and mad science fiction. Mark O’Connell, on his tours interviewing these lunatics in the Midwest, occasionally comes back and sees his family. It roots him, because there he is with this human relationship with his family. It makes everything he’s been researching sound slightly mad.

But when I say they’re lunatics in America, that’s a personal point of view. Because there are some people who take this very seriously. And some people say that with rapid development of artificial intelligence some of this—what is apparently science fiction—will one day become reality.

Personally, I hope not. But there you go.

When I used to work in factual TV years and years ago, if ever we wanted to put some lunatic eccentrics who were funny on screen we’d just go to America for two weeks and do some filming. It’s a rich tapestry of eccentricity, that country, and Mark O’Connell brilliantly exploits that.

You don’t have any sympathy with the desire to solve the problem of death?

Personally, none whatsoever. I’m much more interested in how we get on with each other, as human beings. That’s why I wrote The Empathy Instinct. We’ve got quite enough problems at the moment. We’re now under the yoke of the algorithms of Google and Facebook daily, and nobody’s quite worked out how powerful they are. To add this as well is quite appalling, in my view. It made what’s left of my hair stand on end. And it also made me laugh.

I’d never heard the word ‘biohacking,’ sort of putting a bit of a computer in your body…

And a few other things. Absolutely crazy.

So we’re at the final book on the shortlist, which is about the story of the Jews from 1492 to 1900 and is by the historian Simon Schama.

Yes, Belonging. This is volume 2 of a three-volume exercise, which I think is tied to a TV series. Simon Schama, when he’s on form, is pretty well one of the most exciting writers we have today. His prose crackles with wit, insight, and a sort of rather original articulacy. He is a great writer. He’s a brilliant researcher. The book is essentially a series of the most colourful anecdotes.

Some of us were joking that rather than being called Belonging: the Story of the Jews, it ought to be called Belonging: the Story of Some Jews. And that’s a compliment, by the way, not a criticism. It is a rolling, extraordinary tapestry of bizarre stories. But, behind them, lie some themes. Why are Jews always being excluded? Why are they a peripatetic race? How do they take root in society? Societies partially exclude them, which means they’re more active in commerce than they are in government, and so on. All sorts of themes that have enriched and influenced Judaism over the centuries are in the book. So it’s quite profound. But, above all else, it is just the most coruscatingly enjoyable read. It’s very big, very long, about 650 pages. But you won’t regret reading it, it’s fantastic.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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